Monday, March 15, 2004

The Importance of Opposition Politics
It probably says a lot about just how out of touch with South Africa I really am that I've been confidently predicting that the upcoming elections will see the ANC receive more than two thirds of the vote and the DA further cement its place as the major opposition party. To be honest, this didn't strike me as rocket science. South Africa's changing demographic profile (which, I'm told, will see minority voting groups total less than 20 percent for the first time) will ensure that the ANC's support doesn't change much, whilst the proliferation of small, inconsequential parties that plagued the last election will have been all but killed off leaving only the DA, IFP and possibly the NNP to fight for the opposition vote.

Well, so much for predictions. Over the last few weeks I've met a number of South African's who've revealed that they will be voting for Patricia de Lille's Independent Democrats. The reasons have varied but in almost every case, the person concerned has ended by saying something like, '...and of course I could never vote DA. Tony Leon's too shrill. He seems to oppose the ANC just for the sake of it and he never suggests any constructive alternatives.' So, leaving aside the policies or lack thereof of the Independent Democrats for the moment, lets consider these arguments a bit further.

Moving from the concrete to the abstract and starting with the suggestion that the DA never proposes constructive alternatives and is driven primarily by a reflexive loathing of the ANC. I don't really think this charge stands up to the evidence. Of all the parties on offer in SA the DA is the only one that habitually offers alternatives to govt. I point you to the Basic Income Grant, the universal provision of anti-retrovirals and the establishing of an HIV/AIDS ministry, the Alternative Budget (now a regular feature of budget day) amongst those that most easily come to mind. In almost every case, where there is an ANC policy on something, the DA will have its own policy. And yes, the DA's policy is usually different to the ANC's, sometimes dramatically so. But is this a bad thing? Is this evidence of opposition simply for the sake of it? No, of course it's not. The DA's policies are different from the ANC for a number of very good reasons. Reasons that, I'm afraid to say, appear to be lost on most people.

Firstly, the DA and the ANC occupy different sections of the political spectrum. Which is to say that each is associated with an identifiable, but different, strand of political philosophy. The DA, I would venture to suggest, draws its intellectual strength from the type of Liberalism associated with, say, John Stuart Mill. It is committed to a small govt and the withdrawal of the state from the private lives of its citizen's amongst others. Certainly, there are elements of Edmund Burke's Conservatism. The notion of the importance of the state in buttressing society against centrifugal forces that would tear it apart plays a discernible role in the DA's thinking, but this is not to say that the DA's political philosophy lacks intellectual coherence. Think about it, the fact that it is usually possible to say in advance of a policy statement what the DA's position on an issue will be attests to this underlying fact. Incidentally, the same cannot be said for the other opposition parties (although a presumption of rank opportunism might explain most of what the NNP comes up with nowadays). The ANC of course also derives its strength from a distinctive set of philosophical beliefs, although, as a broad church movement, it is sometimes, harder to pin down what this is exactly - a general commitment to egalitarianism and a mixture of Black Consciousness/Negritude. These beliefs lie at a vary different point on the political spectrum to Liberalism and thus it ought not to be surprising that the DA and the ANC find each other so irritating. But this is a sign of a functioning democracy, not of a knee-jerk loathing of ANC rule as some have claimed of the DA. To think of this another way, can you imagine anyone accusing the Tories or the Democrats of opposition for oppositions sake? No, you can't. The idea is preposterous because we know that these parties see the world through different eyes to Labour or the Republicans. Yet somehow this basic fact has been missed by a lot of very smart people when assaying the South African situation.

Secondly (and this really is missed a lot), one of the strengths of multi-party democracy is that it creates oppositions which question the government, which ask it the tough questions, which poke holes in its policies, which force it to re-think its initiatives. This is not a bad thing. It makes for better policy and, ultimately, for better democracy. It is this which exposes the vacuousness of the NNP's suggestion that more can be accomplished by working with government than against it. But then the NNP doesn't understand democracy. It never has. Even in cases like ours, where one party dominates, the notion of principled opposition can provide a useful corrective to potential mistakes in policy. As Mill would no doubt have suggested, if the ANC isn't forced to explain and defend its policies, it risks making bad policy.

But there is more to this issue than simply intellectual laziness on the part of South Africans. It's the belief that Tony Leon is an arrogant, out of touch, lightweight, a, '...yapping Chihuahua' as Bad Brad would have it, that concerns. No doubt he is these things, most politicians are usually guilty of whatever charges people hurl at them, but I don't think this is the real reason that people have come to dislike him. The truth, I think, is that Leon has come to be something of a scapegoat for everything that we dislike about SA politics. An over-weening ANC, the failure of a credible opposition to emerge, the lunacy of Mbeki's position on HIV/AIDS. In a certain sense, Leon has come to be blamed for all of this. Let me explain this before you start rolling your eyes. I'm proposing the idea that Leon has become a cipher, a stand in, the parody of everything that we dislike about SA political life. Like Mbeki, he is arrogant and stubborn, but whereas it is difficult, especially for whites, to openly criticise Mbeki, Leon makes for an easy target. I encounter this attitude again and again when I discuss SA politics with people. There is a remarkable degree of unease about criticising the ANC, about being too eager to denigrate their policies and question the capacity of their leaders. That attitude does not hold for the DA though, or for any other opposition party for that matter. And since Leon is the most vocal and visible of the opposition leaders, by some obscure process of psychological transferral, people take their frustration out on him. To return to the amusing, but no less instructive, example of Bad Brad. The man decides to form a political party and as a means to this end he needs to do something to get media attention and to show that he's taken the kid gloves off. So what does he do, he lays into Leon, the leader of another small opposition party. Why? Well, because, calling Mbeki a, 'yapping Chihuahua' is the sort of comment that will not endear you to either black or white voters. But you still need to flex the old rhetorical skills and prove that you're not a politician who's afraid to be tough so you attack Leon.

This kind of short-sighted opportunism is prejudicing our chances of establishing a genuine multiparty democracy in which a plurality of beliefs and ideas is accepted and encouraged. It is about time that South Africans finally grow up and start to treat our democracy with the respect and maturity that it deserves.

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