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The Murky Waters of Multi-Party Democracy in South Africa

14 June 2013, 07:26

The advent of democracy in 1994 was hailed as a miracle as it happened with minor glitches in a highly diverse society. One of the key issues hailed as a success was the multi-party dynamic which came to define our party and politics system. The concept of multi-party democracy is based on the notion of contest and competition by groups representing different and highly contested issues within a political system. Therefore the number of parties represented in parliament was viewed and seen as representing the divergent views and preferences of our society. The question is; how true was this assertion? Listening to political parties during their campaigns one is not drawn by strong ideological position of the parties but by personality bashing. South African party system does not seem to be based on highly contested issues of policies but rather on trivial issues of governance. I call them trivial issues, because when the ruling party addresses them, then most parties are left with nothing to justify their existence within the system.

One needs to remember that the South African party system consist of historically liberation movements, the apartheid era and Bantustan era parties and the newly formed parties and interest groups. The apartheid era political parties were racially stratified and therefore represented rather the narrow agenda of white interests. The Bantustan era parties were to me the reflection of the units that sought to justify their existence within the system for the sake of preserving the old order within a rapidly changing system. I could say that the liberation movements held the hopes of many previously marginalized South Africans. These were the hopes for a better life defined by plethora of ideologies that these parties fought for. Therefore, the 1994 transition represented an ideal environment for what one could term a perfect multi-party system as the parties which contested elections had diverse issues, constituencies and even ideologies. This was a platform to consolidate, enhance and entrench a mature multi-party democracy.

However, what we have seen is the opposite as the historical small liberation movements and some of the apartheid era political parties fade into obscurity and splinter parties being formed. What was supposed to be an image of perfect multi-party democracy have slowly evolved to be something else. The formation of splinter groups can be ascribed to many things. One that comes on top of my head is the issue of patronage which has taken a centre stage in our current political environment. Multi-party system should be based on a genuine agenda of the differing preference of the masses and not the quest to dip your hand in the pot. The trend within these new parties that are being formed is that instead of representing the masses, political parties have become the means or the ticket for the gravy train. Therefore, the question is; can these new parties be trusted?

Another reason that we can ascribe the formation of the splinter groups or the new political parties could be viewed as a constricted space for engagement and lobbying within the political parties. The constricted space in many cases cannot be used to build a strong case to start a political party. The reason being that political party is a formation based on contested issues, and one has to therefore, fight from within in order to get their set of opinions or views becoming the agenda of the set party. On the other side we need to acknowledge that some circumstances do call for these splinter groups. However, this has to be on issues of ideologies rather than internal petty party politics. The formation of these new parties is seen as an attempt by the aspiring politicians to define themselves outside the traditional party system.

One of the key problems with these splinter groups is that they do not bring anything different to the table, and they tend to mimic the structures and approaches of the party they had broken away from. Therefore, instead of adding the new species in the pond, the old ones mutate and muddy the water. This has therefore, left the pond of multi-party democracy in South Africa quite murky. It gives the voters not much to choose from as the waters are too murky for one to make a clear choice. 2014 elections will not be different from the previous elections except that there will be few more species in the pond. The question that one can ask is; what difference will this bring to the poor masses? Is the dominance of the ANC since 1994 the reflection of a healthy multi-party democracy or that of small but insignificant players in the party system? As it stands, there is no party that has come up with policies that can contest those of the ANC. Until such time the pond will be dominated by the big fish while the emerging mutants will continue to muddy the waters at the expense of the masses.

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