Wednesday, October 31, 2012

SA obviously needs political opposition, so what is the problem?

It is maddening, among SA’s many other serious problems, that President Zuma is able to shrug off the vast expense of his Nkandla homestead, posing as helpless before the prodigality of his security people and Public Works, while those two departments blame each other for the R200m+ of ‘renovations’.

A directly elected president would not have accepted a new home in SA today at that price. And a party that faced real opposition would never have ok’d it.
But we must endeavour to keep our heads when all about us are losing theirs.
In an article In the national interest to build a strong opposition - BDlive, October 24 - Allister Sparks clutched at straws when he took Helen Zille's kite-flying of a coalition among opposition parties to be the solution. He also looked for, alternatively or perhaps simultaneously, the revival of some sort of ‘movement’, along the lines of the old United Democratic Front. It is a familiar, even popular idea. But it raises another question: can a movement any longer work? Haven’t we just seen a ‘civil society movement’ to get rid of e-tolling fail?
On the issue of a coalition, Bantu Holomisa has already made clear that all parties to one must remain independent, an early warning to putative partners of icebergs ahead. That aside, can we really see him, the fiery Mr Lekota and liberal Helen Zille all working together for long? Who would be the boss when the tough decisions started crowding in? Who would be able to say, ‘This is the way we’re going on this, guys’? Someone has to in every firm. How long before it turned into another Cope? Or, as some will add, into another ANC?

It is an even bigger mistake to draw conclusions from how the UDF worked way-back-when, in an entirely different world. The UDF joined together a range of disparate, largely disenfranchised interests in what was then a single, clear and patently just cause: to overthrow apartheid. Conditions today bear no comparison.
What is required to check and balance the ruling party now is political competition - something like an equally powerful opposition party. That is no ad hoc thing, a group or breakaway got together overnight. It means a party credible enough to convince a fully enfranchised people it will serve them better than the ANC they rely on and support for giving them the benefits they enjoy. It means a party the majority of South Africans believe they can trust to provide an alternative government.

No such party, which would have to be indisputably black-led as a minimum qualification, exists or is in prospect. If either were the case, Ms Zille, a professional politician and realist, would not fly a kite for a coalition.

Another frequently heard complaint is that party lists are the cause of all the problems and must be replaced or modified by introducing constituencies. No one explains how this can happen unless the ANC agrees to it, but let us ignore that for a moment.
Before deciding that constituencies are the cure-all that will make our politicians accountable at last, we must understand the fundamental reason the system lacks accountability is that SA has not yet developed a democratic culture. The republic has a democratic constitution and democratic institutions, but they do not constitute a democratic society. As I have argued on Politicsweb* before, SA is a monocracy or party-state - arguably has never been anything else.

Many are clearly happy with one-party rule and some, increasingly, are not. But for all interests, the die is cast at present. The monocrats will not support any electoral reform that weakens their control until they are obliged to. That is why the Slabbert report gathers dust.

It is notable the DA, SA's so-called official opposition, has not taken up Slabbert and does not campaign for direct elections by constituencies either. That can only be because their strategists know that in present conditions it would almost certainly make things worse than they are.
The majority of SA's voters would simply continue to vote as now for ANC candidates, probably reducing the number of opposition seats in parliament. More obviously, all ANC candidates would continue to be approved, one way or the other, by the party bosses and therefore continue to owe their living to them. The fundamentals would not have changed at all.

*This article first appeared on Politicsweb on October 29 2012