About time we popped the hood on political parties

The opposition benches during a sitting of the National Assembly in Parliament.
The opposition benches during a sitting of the National Assembly in Parliament.
File photo

Phephelaphi Dube

South Africa, alongside other constitutional democracies, recognises the importance of political parties. The founding provisions of the Constitution mention that South Africa is a sovereign, democratic State, founded on the values of universal adult suffrage, a national common voters roll, regular elections and "a multi-party system of democratic government". Political parties as such, play a beneficial role within South Africa's constitutional democracy. 

It stands to reason that political parties are not homogenous but are nonetheless united in their quest to acquire and exercise political power. But what happens when the practices and conduct of political parties are found wanting, resulting in an apparent existential intra-party crisis?

While there is an obvious distinction between political parties and the State, however, South Africa's democracy is highly dependent on political parties. More so at provincial and national level, political parties are voted in – rather than individuals – and it is these members of political parties who then become the executive. 

The executive, in terms of the Constitution, is tasked with ensuring good governance through quality service delivery while realising the aspirations of the nation as a whole.

It would appear however, that South Africa's major political parties are wanting in several respects. The governing party, having recently "recalled" former president Jacob Zuma, appears to be riven by factional conflict over perceived loyalties to the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa. 

At the time of writing, the Johannesburg High Court had reserved judgment in a case where the Eastern Cape province of the governing party challenged the party's national executive committee's (NEC) failure to adopt a report in which the disbandment of the Eastern Cape's provincial structure is recommended. 

It is not the first time in which the governing party has sought refuge from its own machinations using the courts. The governing party's 2017 elective conference saw delegates from KwaZulu-Natal‚ the Free State and North West provinces not being allowed to vote at the party's national elective conference, following various court declarations regarding the latter provinces' elective conferences. 

The North West Provincial Legislature was on the brink of dissolution following a protracted bid to find a replacement for former premier Supra Mahumapelo. This was averted by an eleventh-hour decision by the governing party's national working committee to appoint his replacement, who has just been sworn into the position. This shows that the failure of the political parties has a direct impact on the functioning of the State. The fact that Mahikeng residents in April took to the streets and in violent protests demanded an end to Mahumapelo's tenure attests to this fact. 

The obvious governance failures in the province are arguably linked to the failure by the governing party to hold its members in public office, accountable. The fact that national government has had to intervene in the administration of the province should be welcomed cautiously, given the magnitude of the task ahead.

The official opposition too is entangled currently in public leadership spats, of which the City of Cape Town saga – involving the mayor – is the prominent example. Other intra-party conflicts have seen changes in city council leadership as happened in Knysna, or, as was the case in Mogale City, the intra-party conflict resulting in the mayorship reverting back to the governing party. 

Of course, conflict within political organisations is almost inevitable, but it is with this understanding that conflict should be better managed to ensure that it does not impact on matters of good governance. 

Other major political parties appear to be caught up in racially-inflammatory rhetoric, which only serves to move the nation further away from its "united in diversity" constitutional ideal. It is apparent that such sentiment only serves the short-term goals of the party, while leaving an indelible stain on the nation's long-term reconciliation goal. Other parties lack real party-political power, but nonetheless have powerful party leaders, to the extent that there is little distinction between the party and the individual leader.

In all of this, matters of public concern are receiving scant attention from political parties, making South Africa's version of representative democracy the poorer. The fact that opposition political parties in particular appear to be too wrapped up in divisive internal conflict makes them less capable of holding the government to account. This too claws away from their role in ensuring that Parliament passes relevant and coherent laws. The South African public hence bears the brunt of poorly-functioning internal party politics.

There is a need therefore for all South Africa's political parties to recommit themselves to sound constitutional principles in the way their affairs are conducted. This means ensuring, for example, that the party's constitution is aligned to constitutional dictates and further that the party abides by its own laws. 

Importantly, parties should be responsive to errant behaviour on the part of its members and should hold such members accountable. That courts are invariably used to settle disputes between rival party factions, in turn runs the risk of creating public perception that courts are politicised. 

Ultimately, as the Constitutional Court made clear in the Secret Ballot decision: in the event of conflict between upholding constitutional values and party loyalty, political parties should be guided by the need and undertaking to serve the people – and do only what is in the people's best interest. This is so not only because they were elected through their parties to represent the people, but also to enable the people to govern through them, in terms of the Constitution.

- Dube is director of the Centre for Constitutional Rights.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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