New party takes shape

2008-11-04 00:00

THIS past weekend was a politically significant one in the history of South Africa with a well-attended and successful “national convention” in Sandton paving the way for the birth next month of a new political party.

It is now almost a generation since the end of the armed struggle. Its veterans are dying with increasing frequency and a new middle class has emerged with whom its myths, songs, slogans and rhetoric no longer resonate in the same way. Yet the ANC in its present guise still seeks to hark back to its past as a revolutionary movement, even in such small ways as continuing to call its members “comrades” as if they were still doing battle against apartheid instead of constituting the government of the day. It is dissatisfaction with such a mindset which the new party seeks to exploit.

And there is much else that it can exploit. After nearly 15 years in power with a large majority, the ANC has become complacent, giving the impression that it believes that it now has a quasi-divine right to rule “until Jesus Christ comes”. It has accepted a morality of expediency (as seen, for instance, in its advocacy of a “political settlement” in the charges against its president Jacob Zuma). The system of proportional representation in parliamentary elections means that all power is in the hands of its party bosses who have the right to “deploy” individuals at whim. The absence of a constituency system has meant that nobody is accountable and has allowed, for instance, the Travelgate fraudsters in Parliament to get away with corruption. Unfettered power has led to patronage and nepotism, not only in political and civil service appointments but also in the award of government contracts.

The lack of accountability, moreover, is not confined to Parliament. The government’s greatest failure in delivery to date, it could be argued, is in the provision of an increased electricity supply to cope with its wider provision to those formerly unsupplied and the growth of the economy, but not a single head has rolled. For many, the day the lights went out surely marked a turning point in their feelings about the way the country is being governed.

How well is the new party likely to do in an election which could be upon it in as little as four or five months’ time? Clearly convention co-convenor Mbhazima Shilowa is living in a fantasy world if he seriously thinks that the new party will be the next government. But, judging by the high-profile resignations to date, it could well fragment the ANC. If it gets, say, 10% of the vote, it would be significant. If it were to win 20% or more then a coalition against the ANC becomes a realistic possibility. And as has been successfully demonstrated in the Cape Town metro, there is a future in political coalitions to break the ANC strangehold.

Probably the new party’s chief political asset at the moment is the large indifference factor which has entered South African politics, as well as negative feelings that in some sectors have developed against the ANC. These are strong motivational forces and constitute a tide which the new party must take on its flood — or be bound in the shallows and miseries which has been the fate of many splinter parties in South Africa’s previous political history.

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