Friday, April 16, 2004

What does it all mean?
Now that the dust is settling, its time to reflect on what the election actually means.

First off, lest anybody had any doubts, the ANC is now the only real player in town. The election amounted to little more than a referendum on their rule over the last ten years. The fact that they managed to increase their share of the vote despite concerns about a two thirds majority and the mishandling of such issues as HIV/AIDS means that they can look forward to ruling the country for a generation at least. Nevertheless, I don't buy the argument that winning 70 percent is evidence of the ANC's making major inroads into the opposition. I think their increased share of the national vote is in part a reflection of South Africa's changing demographic profile. Which is to say that since blacks constitute an increasing proportion of the total electorate it should not surprise us that the ANC's share of the vote went up. The 70 percent is also, of course, a result of the ANC's successful campaign to win Zulu votes in KZN. The DA likewise, although pushing up their share of the vote by 3 percent or so have also battled to move beyond their traditional support base. The election confirms that they are now the party of South Africa's minorities rather than simply a white party and as such they could, with some justification I think, claim to be more multi-racial than the ANC. Nevertheless, this doesn't amount to much. For those of us hoping that this election might mark the beginning of the end to racially motivated voting there is not much to draw solace from here. South Africa still votes along racial lines, despite what all the spin doctoring to the contrary might have you believe.

What should we make of the fact that the ANC now has a two thirds majority? The two-thirds majority could, in theory, allow them to change the constitution in cases where the constitutional court finds against them or where the constitution itself prevents them from doing something that they want to. The constitution currently prevents the president from serving more than two terms, so they could change it if Mbeki decides to run again but, so far, they've promised that they have no intention of doing this. At the moment I'm inclined to believe them on this.

As for cases where the court finds against them, I don't think we need fear that they'll simply alter the constitution to get around the problem. In fact in the past they've always acquiesced to the court when forced to do so. When the court ordered them to start providing anti-retrovirals last year, they grumbled a bit, but there was no suggestion that they'd change the constitution to get out of the obligation.

In general, I think the worry about the two thirds majority is a bit of a political red herring. The ANC has had a de facto two thirds majority for the last 5 years (through their alliance with Amichand Rajbansi's Minority Front Party) and they've only changed the constitution once - to allow them to enact the floor swapping legislation last year, a move supported by most other parties. Even with a two thirds majority, they can't change the Bill of Rights and, to be honest, if they were so inclined then I think it would be a sign that things had gotten so bad that people probably wouldn't be too worried about constitutional niceties anyway. The only reason, I can think of, that they might want to change the constitution in the face of opposition from other parties is to allow Mbeki to run for a third term. But I really don't see that happening, not least because there are people within the ANC who have their eyes on the prize and who would not stand idly by and let it happen.

The reality is though, that the ANC is going to be in power for a long time to come. After the 1999 elections, I said it would be a generation at least before they were voted out and I stand by that. The ANC will only start losing elections when the average voter is somebody who was born after apartheid ended. The emotional connections to the party that brought freedom are just too strong to allow most voters to vote along purely rational lines. And, when all is said and done, the ANC haven't done badly over the last ten years. My feeling is they've done enough to justify winning the elections, although perhaps not enough to justify the 70 percent which they've achieved. In any event, I doubt we'll see a non ANC government until at least the mid 2020s.

But is one party dominance such a bad thing? It's worth mentioning that in the cases of many developing countries, one party dominance has not been obviously negative. Japan after 1951, Taiwan after 1947, Singapore after decolonisation, are all countries that got rich under the rule of a dominant party. On the other hand, countries like India whose government regularly changes have remained poor. So the evidence is not cut and dried by any means.

That said, multi-party democracies usually have greater respect for rights and freedoms (compare India to Singapore for instance) and for the notion of pluralism. One of the things that I worry about is that if the ANC's hegemony endures we're slowly going to find that SA turns into a corporatist state. By this I mean that the party slowly comes to dominate all aspects of SA life such that there is no space for non-ANC public life. You want to work for the civil service, be a judge, run an NGO, join a sports body, win a government business contract etc then you'll need to be a member of the ANC. A friend of mine from Botswana has just finished his DPhil in law and has returned home with the aim of eventually becoming a judge. Before he left, he told me that he'd joined the major Botswanan political party because he thought it would improve his chances of becoming a judge in ten years time. This is the kind of thing that I'm referring too when I say that SA is in danger of becoming a corporatist state. Because the party dominates everything, you'll need to be a member of the party or, at the very least, uncritical of it, if you want to be successful in public life.

It is still too early to tell if we are going this way but my hope is that our strong and independent media and natural propensity for causing trouble (think of Zachie Achmat and the Treatment Action Campaign) will prevent the ANC from ever dominating SA life in quite this way. It's interesting to reflect on the strength of civil society in the past. Think of the various civic organisations that constituted the UDF in the 80s and the various church and faith based pressure groups which were able to operate in South Africa inspite of the strictures placed upon them by the Apartheid state. The civic movement in South Africa is certainly not as strong as it used to be, but the emergence and success of groups like the TAC give me hope that that tradition is still there and that it is still capable of operating independently of the state. If we are to resist the trend to corporatism then it is this history of recognising the difference between the state and civil society that will play the crucial role. Time will tell.

What should we make of the election's significance for opposition politics. I'm afraid that I'm not particularly optimistic here. The NNP got slaughtered which makes me happy because I don't believe that the sort of political opportunism that they've displayed should be rewarded. And, depending on how one interprets their performance, there is perhaps another reason to be happy. The NNP's campaign was based on the idea that since the ANC was destined to win, it was better to vote for the NNP who might at least have influence with the ANC rather than for the DA who don't. Its an idea that has a certain appeal to it but if it was widely accepted it would have spelt the end to real opposition politics and thus to genuine multi-partyism. So perhaps we can interpret the electorate's rejection of the NNP as a sign that it wants a genuine alternative to the ANC rather than simply a host of minnows desperately trying to exert influence over the ANC whale. The fact that the electorate didn't fall for Kortbroek's oft repeated assertion that there is no place for 'confrontational politics' in South Africa gives me hope for its maturity and level-headedness.

The other encouraging thing is that the electorate decided not to split its vote amongst several parties and that the DA was able, therefore, to consolidate its position. After all the stories over the last fortnight about the ID's taking DA support I had begun to fear that the DA would actually lose support and that South Africa would end up with 3 or 4 parties each with 5 percent. Again, I think we can thank the maturity of the electorate for the failure of the ID's to make a real impression and for the DA's 3 percent gain.

I'm afraid that's it for the good news. The fact of the matter is that, despite the ANC's disastrous handling of HIV/AIDS and Zimbabwe and despite a major effort by the opposition to win black support, the opposition share of the vote still declined. I'm pretty certain that in the DA's heart of hearts there's a feeling of disappointment. They'd been talking about getting 15 to 20 percent of the vote and with even a small swing amongst black voters this would not have been unreasonable. As it stands though, it appears that they won very little support from black voters and I think the lesson for them is that they need to bring on a new generation of black leaders if they want to continue to grow. If Tony Leon is as committed to the success of South Africa's democracy as he claims to be, he might want to think about stepping down now. He's done a fantastic job taking the DA from 1.7 percent of the vote in 1994 to 9.4 percent in 1999 to 12.3 percent today. Along the way, he first consolidated the white vote and he's now pretty much consolidated the minority vote but he must know that this is as far as he can go. The DA is at the cross-roads, it needs to decide how serious it is about taking on the ANC and if it is serious, it needs to act accordingly.

The other bad news so far as the DA is concerned is that they appear unlikely to form part of the government in either the Western Cape or Kwa Zulu-Natal. The failure of the DA: IFP alliance in KZN is a very bitter pill and will, inevitably, cast doubts over the future of the 'coalition for change'.

The big non-event of the elections was, of course, the failure of the Independent Democrats to win major support. Amazingly, much of the local press (see News24 and today's Zapiro cartoon) still insist on trumpeting the ID's paltry 1.73 percent as some sort of great victory. Considering that de Lille herself was predicting that the IDs would get 10 percent and a survey last week by Markinor was suggesting 7 percent, the actual result is rather disappointing. In fact it amounts to a repudiation of all this media fluff about how the Independent Democrats were going to remake opposition politics and of the ID's own claims to be breaking the mould. I can't understand the attraction of de Lille. She's a populist demagogue whose penchant for publicity and self-promotion hides the fact that her party has no policies and no coherent ideological position. She's the Winnie Mandela of the opposition. I'm pretty certain that the IDs will suffer some sort of implosion in the next few years as its members come to resent the power and public profile of Patricia de Lille.

Right, enough for now. I actually have a degree to do, believe it or not, and I really need to spend a little time on it.

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