Friday, May 13, 2016

Opposition: the new force the ANC must reckon with in South Africa


In a democracy, government and opposition co-exist openly if not comfortably.  Since people differ in their views and interests, it is accepted that government without opposition is impossible and that opposition will always find something to oppose.

South Africa is a democracy that is getting used to being one. After enjoying two decades of deference as ‘the ruling party’, the African National Congress looks vulnerable, no longer certain to rule till Jesus comes again as prophesied.

This novel idea is difficult for the new South Africa to manage. It is not being spread by a ‘white’ media, as the party always assured the faithful in the past. The storm of criticism comes, undeniably now, from a broad public that includes ANC supporters, well known and unknown.

People are not concerned firstly with ‘corruption’: Nkandla, the Guptas, President Zuma breaking his oath of office. They are protesting over government’s failure to provide adequate housing, health and education, plus many other ‘classless’ benefits that are popularly included under service delivery: freeways that are free; trains that run on time.

The problem is no longer confined to inefficiency: the derelictions of unchallenged ANC rule are obvious at local and national level. The problem is what to do about it. Can political parties change things or will people take matters into their own hands? The other half of the democratic equation is fully involved now: opposition.

People who have voted ANC for a generation have little to guide them on the subject. Doom and gloom merchants point out there has been ‘opposition’ for years. SA is a multi-party democracy - it says so in the constitution. The Democratic Alliance is even called the official opposition. What good has that done? Nothing changes. The ANC do what they like. Politicians are all the same, only out for themselves.

SA politics too has always misrepresented opposition. Either its aim was to bring back apartheid, an evident impossibility since 1990, or it was there to ‘keep the ANC on its toes’. This notion, like the denial of an effective role for voters implicit in the term ‘ruling party’, has been common among commentators who should know better. Opposition that is worthy of the name is not there to help out the ANC government: it is to provide an alternative to it.

The coming democratic elections are different from all others to date. They are the first in which the outcome is not a foregone conclusion; the first to be so bitterly fought; the first to take place in such a heightened atmosphere of political and economic crisis: a discredited ANC president and a fiscus under extreme pressure.

They will also be the first to provide solid data about which way the democratic wind is blowing, to show if there is yet a discernible direction. Will they mark the start of a real transformation in SA?

Until very recently, opposition was seen as all of a piece. There was no segmentation of what was referred to as ‘the masses’. You were either for or against the ANC and ‘the masses’ were for the ANC. Opposition did not count.

This was confirmed by a plethora of tiny political parties going nowhere and others that came and went exactly as the ANC predicted: the PAC, Cope, Agang. The DA was more tenacious, but otherwise standing proof that opposition did not count.

The party had no chance of early popular success. It was a ‘white’ party - read counter-revolutionary, against transformation. It had a white leader. Analysts, white and black, generally agreed the DA had reached a ceiling of white racist support. When the number of DA voters continued to rise year on year, this view was adjusted: the DA would ultimately reach a ceiling of white racist support.
 
When Mmusi Maimane replaced the white leader, he turned white overnight; blacks would reject him. Also, he would inevitably cause the party to lose its white racist support.
Mmusi Maimane
 
All this is settled belief because of a supposed governing factor in South Africa called ‘identity politics’ - as if politics elsewhere is not identity politics and identity takes only two possible and permanent forms: poor black and rich white. In August, SA’s middle class vote may or may not endorse that scenario.

Exploding with everything else in the Big Bang of opposition are the Economic Freedom Fighters, already ‘the third largest opposition party’. The billing somewhat glosses over the fact that the EFF secured 6% of the vote in the 2014 national elections. The party claims to have doubled its support since then, but its debut in the coming local elections will be judged very critically. As a precaution, Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema has already warned the elections might not be free and fair.

As with the DA, there are questions about EFF opposition. Has it succeeded because any opposition to the ANC at present is better than none? Will that still work when President Zuma goes?

How are we sure ‘the youth’ support the EFF? ‘The youth’ is an undifferentiated abstraction like ‘the masses’, ‘the poor’ and ‘students’, all also said to be supporters of the EFF. In reality, youth is a bundle of identities and passions that segment along lines not only of colour but of gender and class, background, beliefs and aspirations that are in turn shaped and re-shaped by events. Who can say how young people will vote, or if they will vote in significant numbers?

Julius Malema
Julius Malema swears his allegiance to the SA constitution one day and goes on international TV the next threatening to remove the country’s elected government at the barrel of a gun. Are the 94% of SA voters who did not vote EFF relaxed about that?

One explanation is that Julius Malema need not be taken seriously. That is a mistake. Julius Malema needs to be taken very seriously, not for what he says, but because people believe him whatever he says.

That leaves the wounded but by far the biggest contender for power, the ANC. The party is hardly likely to surrender without a fight. The opposition is growing and formidable, but it has serious weaknesses and is divided. The ANC has impressive human and financial resources and an ability to close ranks and survive that has been tested and proved many times.

Forewarned of danger, the party will be getting its act together. Perhaps it will mount a brilliant election campaign. Perhaps it will find a way of getting President Zuma, the millstone round its neck, to retire. Perhaps ANC supporters will turn out to vote in greater numbers than ever before to defend the party they love.

In a democracy, opposition co-exists with government; the two contest and influence each other continuously and outcomes defy prediction.

You can see why you must get out and do your bit in August.

 

 






 

 

 

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