WITH a third resounding general election victory under the ANC’s belt and competitors falling by the wayside, it has become fashionable to argue that opposition in the traditional parliamentary sense is no longer necessary in South Africa. Predictably the argument has become abusive: those who support opposition parties are accused of ‘chihuahua politics’, presumably yapping irritatingly and ineffectively at the heels of serious power. Democracy, it is said, can be readily defended within the all-embracing folds of the ANC. Shorn of diversionary ideas, such as the defence of freedom by various monitoring agencies protected by the Constitution, this is simply justification for a one-party state.
To add a touch of authenticity such reasoning is touted as specifically African, a new way of looking at politics through particularly patriotic lenses. This makes a recent pronouncement in Addis Ababa all the more interesting. At the African Union conference, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the World’s most respected African statesman, called for a new continental spirit of democratic empowerment at the centre of which is respect for the idea of political opposition; as well, of course, as an effective civil society. According to Annan, democracy is democracy.
We continue to live with the consequences of the ANC’s internal confusion. It has every right to be proud of its credentials as a liberation movement, but these are a matter of history. The ANC is now just another political party. The fact that it collected seven tenths of the votes of those South Africans who registered and then turned up on election day 2004 does not make its policies, practices or politicians particularly meritorious. It continues to muddle its identity with that of the State, and its election successes encourage it to assume the political moral high ground. All of this leads to the fallacious idea that national debate can be exercised within the ruling party as a substitute for an official parliamentary opposition.
James Myburgh, writing recently in Focus, explained this as a Jacobin view of democracy in which the political rights of some South Africans are assumed to be more important than those of others. To do this, of course, it is necessary to see them not as individual citizens, but as undifferentiated groups of people. Day in, day out we hear reference to ‘our people’. The will of the ‘people’, the ANC, the state and the nation coalesce into a seamless entity. If all of this sounds disturbingly familiar, you would not be mistaken: not long ago the National Party treated die Volk in much the same way and similarly regarded opposition as an irritant bordering on subversion.
You do not have to admire the Democratic Alliance (DA) or its leaders to support the idea that Tony Leon heads the official opposition and should be treated with the respect due to this crucial role in a democracy. As an opposition the DA has done a good job and there is no reason to doubt its credibility. Those who do, one is entitled to suspect, are looking to delegitimise the very concept of opposition and seeking a new political order of monolithic power and manufactured consent.
Perhaps surprisingly, and setting aside marginal extremists mainly on the Right, there is a remarkable uniformity about the policies of South Africa’s political parties. What differentiates them are varying ideas about how to achieve similar goals. Under these circumstances the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate and the rough and tumble of adverserial political challenge are particularly appropriate and constructive. The broadest spectrum of ideas will not emerge from one party, however benign. Nor is this a description that can any longer be applied to the ANC, which is more centralised and authoritarian and less tolerant than it was ten years ago. As Rhoda Kadalie recently pointed out, the new style is a compound of arrogance, abrasiveness and animosity, which is hardly the background for wide-ranging debate. There is growing evidence that success within the ANC is a function of loyalty and obedience to central power rather than ability, as is illustrated by the composition of the Cabinet.
All governments, even those in the most highly developed democracies, need to be kept accountable to the nation at large, deflecting them from the temptation to cut corners and operate in corrupt and inappropriate ways. This is an honourable and patriotic task and can be achieved by statutory bodies, civil society institutions and a party political opposition − each is as important as the other. In the darkest days of apartheid tyranny just a single member of the real opposition in parliament, Helen Suzman, forced a measure of accountability on a government predisposed to uncivilised policy and practice.
There is about contemporary South Africa a growing whiff of Animal Farm: we are all equal, but some of us are more equal than others. One of the potential casualties is the right to articulate diverse viewpoints, a freedom that was wrested after a titanic struggle from the apartheid government. It is a sobering reflection on our current condition that influential people are seriously suggesting that this freedom is so redundant that we can entrust it to the ruling party. Those who take a diametrically opposed view have nothing in common with the maligned chihuahua. On the contrary, theirs are the politics of the watchdog, guarding the nation against the threat of a new version of baasskap.
This article was first published in The Witness on 3 August 2004 and entitled ‘The new baasskap’
Further reading: There is a plethora of books on South African politics in the first twenty years of democracy. Among the best are: Richard Calland, The Zuma Years: South Africa’s Changing Face of Power (Cape Town: Zebra, 2013); Max du Preez, A Rumour of Spring: South Africa After 20 years of Democracy (Cape Town: Zebra, 2013); Ray Hartley, Ragged Glory: The Rainbow Nation in Black and White (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2014); and Martin Plaut and Paul Holden, Who Rules South Africa? Pulling the Strings in the Battle for Power (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2012)