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Is weak opposition a liability to South Africa’s democracy?

A scan across Southern Africa’s political space shows domination of former liberation organisations. These parties monopolise power and they have largely remained ideologically unchanged to meet the 21st century sociopolitical challenges. The internal politics of the parties is profoundly undemocratic as evidenced by the leadership structure that generally works counter to democratic aspirations of the wider population. Competition for leadership is hampered by uncanny fixation on succession policies that observe seniority in the party and at times recognised participation in the liberation struggle. Leadership is effectively closed out to young vibrant politicians. Disturbingly, these parties have an uncanny control over the military and most state security organs which inevitably ensures their stranglehold on power.

The predominantly rural population of Southern Africa assures the former liberation parties that have traditionally drawn the majority of their support from rural areas a guaranteed broad and often blindly loyal support. The rural population presents African politics with a huge challenge in its pursuit for democracy; rural areas have poor access to information hence residents’ political understanding and sophistication tends to be comparatively lower than in urban areas. This scenario makes it harder for the opposition to establish itself beyond urban areas thereby creating a skewed political environment marked by the perpetuation of former liberation party rule and an absence of credible opposition. The democratic potential of the whole country is therefore left in the hands of the liberation parties whose democratic credentials are questionable at best and non existent at worst. This article will look at South Africa’s democracy and the curse of a weak opposition.

The major question to be addressed is whether having many political players in a country will necessarily enhance democracy. Democracy here is seen as a political ideology or decision making process in which people determine their leaders who in turn are expected to carry out the will of the electorate. Political parties act as intermediaries between the state and the people. I believe strong and credible opposition can provide a real challenge and scrutiny to government activities and provide a viable ideological alternative to the electorate and ideally provide a platform for democracy.

A government kept on its toes by a vibrant opposition is likely to keep its policies and goals in check and, hopefully in sync with the needs of the population. However, the opposition itself has to be built on democratic foundations and if operating within a structurally permissive political environment it can foster national democracy. Opposition parties based on ethnic division and hatred will not only compromise democracy but may hinder it. In the same token governments that are philosophically resistant to democracy will turn democratic opposition into political enemies and seek confrontation that may be counterproductive to democratic aspirations of a country. The number of opposition parties in a country should therefore not be used as a yard stick for measuring the level of democracy in that country.

I am increasingly feeling the best thing to happen to South Africa now will be for the ANC to lose the next election. My fear is that the longer former liberation organisations stay in power the higher the chances of them digging in, making it impossible for other parties to participate in a level political playing field. The ANC has not delivered on its promise of poverty alleviation; if anything poverty has deepened while the gap between rich and poor people has widened during the ANC’s tenure. No race has been spared poverty just as much as the increase of wealth has not only been among whites; poverty has not only been for blacks.

The ANC seems to have become complacent, probably taking the electorate for granted. Party leaders continue to make new promises although older ones are still outstanding. What is also of increasing concern is the party’s apparent unwillingness to rein in its youth leader Mr Julius Malema who has made defending the ANC’s poor record his mission. While Mr Malema rightly raises pertinent issues of poverty and inequality in South Africa, the problem is that he uses inflammatory statements and polarises the country along racial lines thereby stifling the opportunity for a mature debate on the issues. It is true that white people benefited disproportionately from a racially biased economy during the apartheid era however, blaming the widening gap between the rich and poor on white citizens is preposterous.

In his analysis of South Africa’s socioeconomic inequalities, Mr Malema projects rich whites as being the cause but conveniently forgets another group of beneficiaries of which he is part: this is a group of a rapidly growing black elite class that has accumulated a lot of wealth in the 16 years of ANC rule. I wonder if Mr Malema would prefer a ceiling for white people’s wealth! If there is no problem with young black people getting richer; then there should be no problem with taxpaying white South Africans getting richer too! South Africa should be halting poverty not wealth creators!

Apartheid is a factor but certainly not a cause for the growing poverty and increasing gap between the rich and the poor in South Africa. The problem has been the failure of the ANC led government to come up with viable policies that will comprehensively address an obviously flawed distribution of resources across the racial divide and seriously tackle the problem of poverty.

The ANC may be a relatively democratic political party but in recent years the party appears to be increasingly becoming unresponsive to domestic issues yet prepared to play a major role in international affairs as evidenced by its ill-advised decision to host an expensive football tournament, the world cup, whose economic benefits in the longer term are doubtful. It is here that a lack of serious opposition seems to threaten the political fabric of South Africa.

The majority of opposition parties lack a wider following across South Africa’s diverse society. The opposition parties may raise the problem of poverty but how seriously is the opposition taken? While DA has a good and vibrant leader, it suffers from the stigma of being perceived as a white people’s party so its influence is largely restricted to white and mixed race communities. COPE seems to be a mini ANC unfortunately built on ethnic lines thus lacks a convincing national agenda therefore does not command a nationwide acceptance. Surely South Africa does not need another Inkatha. COPE will do itself and South Africa the world of good by being a truly ideologically independent party not a bitter ANC offshoot, a mere protest organisation drawing its strength from the hope that ANC support and authority will eventually wane.

I believe individuals’ political awareness is integral in the development of a purely democratic political climate. If opposition political parties remain marginalised hence cannot deliver the desired changes, it should be up to individuals to lobby their government. However, individuals need to be aware of their rights and responsibilities in order to be able to form lobby groups and work within the laws of the country or even outside national laws but within international laws to challenge the state.

South Africa is a geographically gigantic country; this, coupled with the racial and cultural diversity calls for devolution of powers hence the need for effective local political participation. However, I do not believe the majority of South Africans have the necessary political understanding, skills and sophistication that may realistically keep the ANC on its toes. The South African society is still highly racially and ethnically divided a situation that tends to marginalise a significant part of the population from local politics.

It has been argued in this article that opposition alone does not always guarantee a flourish of democracy neither should it be taken as an indicator of a country’s level of democracy. Strong democratic opposition working within a correspondingly democratic framework can foster democracy in a country while undemocratic opposition may be an obstacle to democracy. While the ANC remains largely democratic, the lack of credible opposition may be causing the party to take its electorate lightly. Political parties may play a major role in facilitating democracy but the creation of a political democracy should not be seen as the sole responsibility of politicians and organised political institutions; individuals have a huge role to play to ensure their rights are not trampled upon. However, without political understanding, skills and sophistication it may be difficult for individuals to organise themselves, participate in local government, and make credible demands to central government to ensure accountability and responsiveness.


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