Bestriding South Africa like a colossus

Patrick Laurence discusses the opposition parties' future prospects.

Summary - ANC hegemony, spectacularly confirmed and extended in the April elections, is as much a failure for the opposition parties as a triumph for the governing party. The DA does not agree, and Douglas Gibson points out that its share of the vote increased by 30 per cent (from 9,56 per cent to 12,37 per cent). This may provide some comfort, but it cannot obscure the DA’s failure to achieve its target of 20 per cent of the vote. The suspicion lingers that most DA gains were at the expense of the NNP, and that the party’s quest for increased black support has not brought significant rewards. Three questions now face political analysts. Are any of the existing opposition parties capable of becoming an alternative governing party? Is the long-anticipated split in the tripartite alliance likely to occur soon? And is there an alternative force maturing in the wings? Many people believe that the DA has little chance of attracting black support while Tony Leon remains leader, because of his aggressive style and white skin. But during his tenure the DP-DA share of the vote has risen from under 2 per cent to more than 12 per cent. The DA probably won more black votes on April 14 than the black-led PAC, Azapo and Socialist Party of Azania, which collectively won 1 per cent. The DA seems fated to a hard grind in which its increases in black support will be measured in miniscule increments. The prognosis for smaller opposition parties is even bleaker. The IFP has steadily lost ground, and the UDM failed to recoup the support it lost through floor-crossing. Could the ANC-tripartite alliance generate an opposition workers’ party from within its own ranks? The ANC dislikes the ‘ultra-left tendency’ in Cosatu, while the leftists are concerned about the ANC’s pro-capitalist and privatisation policies. Despite these tensions, however, a split before the 2009 elections is unlikely, largely because of the magnitude of the ANC’s election victory. Moreover, the fact that several unions have been beset by financial mismanagement makes this an inopportune time for Cosatu to break with the alliance. Another development favours a modus vivendi between the ANC and its leftist allies: after years of fiscal discipline the ruling party is about to increase social spending to reduce poverty. The next five years may, however, see intensified opposition to the ANC from emerging new social movements, including the Anti-Privatisation Forum, the Landless People’s Movement and the umbrella Social Movements Indaba (SMI). Constituent parts of the SMI have announced plans to contest the 2005 local government elections. Local councils are the main delivery vehicles for the ANC’s anti-poverty campaign, and a challenge at this level from candidates proclaiming themselves to be champions of the poor could therefore be highly significant.

The political hegemony of the African National Congress (ANC), emphatically confirmed and substantially extended by the 14 April election results, is as much a comprehensive failure for the main opposition parties as a spectacular triumph for the ANC and its leadership. So much so that Malegapuru Makgoba, interim vice-chancellor of the KwaZulu-Natal university, refers collectively to the opposition as "a plethora of Chihuahua parties programmed by history and culture to bark reflexively at every policy or statement the ruling party produces".1

The largest of the opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA), obviously does not subscribe to the view that it is part of the failure of the opposition and still less to Makgoba's characterisation of it as one of many yapping little dogs.

DA leader Tony Leon describes its electoral performance as one that has laid "the foundation for a strong, positive alternative government to the ANC in South Africa".2 Its chief whip, Douglas Gibson, similarly prefers to highlight positive aspects of the outcome, stating that the DA's share of the vote - which rose from 9,56 per cent in 1999 to 12,37 per cent - represents a 30 per cent increase as against a mere 5 per cent increase for the ANC, whose share of the vote rose from 66,35 per cent in 1999 to 69,68 per cent.3

While there is some solace for the DA in the outcome, neither Leon's rhetorical flourish nor Gibson's arithmetical calculations can obscure the DA's failure to achieve its projected target of close to 20 percent of the vote. Nor do they explain the failure of the DA's coalition for change with the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) to capture the predicted tally of between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of the vote and thus emerge as a prospectively powerful counter-force to the ANC-led tripartite alliance.

The suspicion lingers that most of the DA gains were at the expense of its erstwhile ally, the all but extinct New National Party (NNP). A corollary follows: the DA's persevering quest for increased support in the ANC-dominated black community has not brought substantial rewards in absolute numbers, though, as Gibson emphasises, the percentage increases on small voting bases in black townships and villages are impressive.

Three questions confront political analysts as they ponder the spectacle of the ANC colossus towering over its diminutive opponents.

The first is whether any of the existing opposition parties are capable of generating the quantum change necessary to transform themselves into a potentially alternative governing party, either on their own or in coalition with like-minded parties.

The second is whether the long anticipated split in the ruling tripartite alliance between the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party is likely to occur in the next five to ten years.

The third is whether there is a still largely quiescent alternative force maturing in the societal womb as a serious challenger to ANC dominance.

On the first question it should be noted that a frequent observation is that the DA is unlikely to succeed in winning substantial support from the indigenous black majority as long as Leon remains at the helm. One assumption is that Leon's opposition style is too confrontational, that it alienates more potential supporters than it attracts. Another is that his white skin is a serious liability at the present juncture in South Africa's history.

The supposition that Leon's pugnacity is repugnant to voters, and that a less aggressive style of leadership would be more productive, is unproven. Since Leon took over as leader of first the Democratic Party and then the DA, the DP-DA share of the vote has risen progressively: from less than 2 per cent in 1994 to close to 10 per cent in 1999 and, most recently, to more than 12 per cent. The postulation that a black leader would win more votes is questionable. The record of most black-led opposition parties is unimpressive: the DA almost certainly won more black votes on 14 April than the Pan Africanist Congress, the Azanian People's Organisation and the Socialist Party of Azania, which collectively won a minuscule one per cent.

The DA seems fated to a hard grind during which its increases in black support will be measured by minutely small increments year by year. The problem for the DA is that it might be overtaken by events as it trudges on. A possible scenario that could sideline the DA is South Africa's descent from a one-party dominant state to a de facto one-party state. Another not necessarily implausible scenario is the emergence of a populist party in response to a sharp deterioration of living conditions in the poorer strata of the black community.

Without succumbing to a determinist view of events, the prognosis for smaller opposition parties is even more bleak. The next biggest party, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), has steadily lost ground in its former Zulu-based stronghold in KwaZulu-Natal since 1994, while the United Democratic Movement (UDM) has failed to recoup the support it lost when the bulk of its parliamentary representatives defected to the ANC during the floor-crossing "window of opportunity" last year.

An issue that requires appraisal is the prospect of the ANC-tripartite alliance generating an opposition party from within its own ranks. The notion of an opposition party - usually referred to as a workers' party - emanating from the disgruntled socialists and communists in the tripartite alliance is not necessarily the wishful notion of opponents of the ANC anxious to see its power base contract.

No less a person than Nelson Mandela has acknowledged that a split between the ANC and the SACP (many of whose members hold pivotally important positions in Cosatu) will occur. "After apartheid is destroyed, the SACP… will take their own line, which we will not follow. We won't follow socialism."4 Mandela's statement leaves open the question of who will judge when apartheid is destroyed and what the criteria for its destruction will be.

Of hardly less significance than Mandela's admission is a scenario in Cosatu's 1997 September Commission that postulates a split in the SACP, in which half of its leaders break away from the ANC-alliance to link hands with a Workers' Party formed in opposition to the ANC.5

As Eddie Webster and Sakhela Buhlungu, of the sociology work shop at the university of the Witwatersrand observe in their illuminating assessment6 of contemporary trade unionism in South Africa, there have been - and still are - serious tensions within the tripartite alliance, mainly over its direction and policy orientation.

The ANC has deplored the existence of an "ultra-left tendency" in Cosatu. It has accused ultra-leftists of seeking to "wage a class struggle against capitalists in the ANC" and set itself the task of isolating and defeating them. Leftists, however, are concerned at the ANC's increasingly pro-capitalist policies and, in particular, its commitment to privatising or "restructuring" state-owned and state-controlled assets. Though the high point of strife within the tripartite alliance - Cosatu's anti-privatisation strike of August 2001 - seems to have passed, the tensions caused by ideological divergence are never far from the surface.

It remains to be seen whether the tensions will erupt again and whether they will be severe enough to lead to the long predicted split within the tripartite alliance. The chances of that happening before the 2009 general election appear to be minimal, however, much as the ANC's political foes may hope for it to occur.

One reason is the ANC's stunning 14 April election victory. Like the earlier election victories of 1994 and 1999, it has consolidated the ANC as the dominant force in the alliance. Another reason is the urgent need to deal with the threat to the rights of formally employed workers posed by the "new working poor", whose ranks are made up of people have been "outsourced" into lower-paid temporary work or retrenched into "self-employment".7 The challenge staring the unions in the face is to unionise the new working poor or find themselves moored on, in the words of the September Commission, "a shrinking section of the working class".

Beyond that serious financial mismanagement has afflicted several unions, among them the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers' Union and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union. The financial ills of the unions are, in part at least, a manifestation of a deeper problem: the susceptibility of some union leaders to the lure of big salaries and a lavish living style and, with it, the temptations of corruption.8

These problems make it an inopportune time for Cosatu's leadership to take the rash step of breaking from the ANC-controlled alliance. Instead Cosatu is more likely to pursue a less radical option: that of functioning as a leftist force pressing within the alliance for the ANC to pursue more redistributive economic policies.9 The same applies to the SACP.

As South Africa's last white president, FW de Klerk, has put it: "Those who are expecting an imminent split with the alliance should not hold their breath. The ANC leadership has firm control of the reins of power and patronage and will, in the short to medium term, be able to slap down serious dissent from any quarter."10 De Klerk buttresses his conclusion with another observation. Cosatu leaders, like those of the SACP, are rewarded for their acceptance of ANC leadership with a special allocation of ANC seats in parliament and, through them, "very attractive employment opportunities" in government and the parastatals, though Cosatu declined the offer after the 14 April election.

Another development favours a modus vivendi between the ANC and its more left-inclined allies. After years of strict fiscal discipline, the ANC is increasingly willing to loosen the purse strings and raise the level of social spending in a bid to substantially reduce poverty. The ANC's modified mindset will make the ANC more amenable to pressure from Cosatu and the SACP for a greater emphasis on redistribution of wealth in its economic policies.

The next five years may, however, see intensified opposition to the ANC government from emerging new social movements, of which the Anti-Privatisation Forum, the Landless People's Movement, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the Anti-Eviction Forum in the Western Cape, and the umbrella Social Movements Indaba (SMI), are the best known. They are not restrained by the same considerations of prudence as Cosatu and the SACP. They have already manifested their potential power by organising a major protest march during the World Sustainable Development Conference in Johannesburg in 2002, one that was bigger than a rival march under the auspices of the ANC and its allies and which was characterised by a hostile encounter with the minister in the presidency, Essop Pahad.

Dale McKinley, a spokesperson for the Anti-Privatisation Forum, dismisses a report that the Social Movements Indaba (SMI), has decided to contest the 2009 election. While the possibility of contesting the election has been discussed, no decision has been taken to do so, he emphasises. But, he adds, the constituent parts of the SMI will definitely contest the 2005 local government elections. Only after that will a decision be taken on whether or not to contest the national and provincial elections in 2009, McKinley states.11

Local government is a far more important site of the struggle for power than meets the eye at first. The ANC government has chosen local government councils as the main delivery vehicles for its campaign to reduce poverty. That makes any electoral assault on them important, particularly if it comes from candidates proclaiming themselves to be champions of the poor. Local government is thus an important site of contestation, as the ANC promises of improved delivery will be tested there.

ANC dominance of the third tier of government at present is even more pronounced than it is at national or provincial levels. Incumbent ANC councillors will for that reason alone fiercely resist the challenge of the social movements. The outcome will indicate whether a new and potentially powerful opposition force, drawing its support from the pauperised strata of South African society, is in the offing.

Trevor Ngwane, a former ANC member of the Johannesburg City Council and now a leading organiser for the Anti-Privatisation Forum, believes a gauntlet has been thrown down. "The elections have shown a need for a left alternative to the ANC," he says. "It can't be built in a day. But we certainly think the ANC's overwhelming victory poses a challenge to the social movements."12

1 Sunday Times, 25 April 2004.
2 Statement by Leon on DA website, 15 April 2004.
3 Statement by DA chief whip Douglas Gibson on DA website. 18 April 2004.
4 The Star, 18 January 1991 and South African Review 6, page 86.
5 Report of the September Commission, released in August 1997 and available on Cosatu website.
6 Between Marginalisation and Revitalisation? The State of Trade Unionism in South Africa.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Webster in Opposition and Democracy, edited by Roger Southall.
10 The Star, 21 April 2004.
11 Interview with McKinley.
12 Sunday Independent, 25 April 2004.