Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The necessity of opposition
After a prolonged absence (due to short-term employment as a student dean) I'm back! Many thanks to Andrew for doing such a sterling job in my absence (apart from this dubious and, I hasten to add, entirely groundless remark).

Unfortunately, of course, I missed most the action during the elections. Overall, these seem to have been a triumph for the ANC and a disappointment for opposition parties, most of which fell far short of their goals. Now, more than ever, therefore, its important to recall the importance of keeping the opposition alive in South Africa.

Some time ago, I discussed Amartya Sen's classic study Development as Freedom. Sen's basic thesis is that political freedom is not incompatible with economic development; rather, its a necessary condition thereof. Hence, development as freedom. Sen famously observes that democracies seldom suffer from famine, whereas dictatorships do. Malnutrition might be common in India, the world's largest democracy, but, according to Sen, famines aren't. Similarly, its no coincidence that Zimbabwe is gripped by serious food shortages whereas none of its neighbours are. The reason? In a democracy, leaders have an incentive to attend to social problems. If they don't, they are likely to be voted out of power and be subject to the problems themselves. Moreover, if speech is free, information about pending catastrophes reaches the leadership more easily, who are then able to act pro-actively.

The ANC's belated decision to roll out anti-retroviral drugs can be seen as an example of Sen's principle in action. The response to this move that I've most commonly encountered is "its just because of the election." True, and the ANC should have done it years earlier. Nevertheless, the fact that they did do it, despite Mbeki's intransigence on this matter, is important. It shows that the ANC feared the ballot box. It showed democracy in action.

Well and good. But before we get too carried away, we should remind ourselves that, if there hadn't been a vocal opposition, chiefly in the form of the DA, articulating viable policy alternatives, we'd probably still be listening to Mbeki's cryptic prevarications on HIV/AIDS. Unless there is an alternative, somewhere for votes to go, Sen's analysis breaks down. If the ruling party can simply assume its support, because it faces no electoral challenge, then it has no direct incentive to respond to social problems. That is why, now more than ever, its necessary for the opposition to dig in, survive and continue to offer alternatives. If it doesn't, the advantages of democratic rule in South Africa will be eroded.


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