South Africa's political parties have not been serving our democracy very well. But the three bigger parties will be forced to confront their divisions after the election, writes Max du Preez.
If you are one of those voters who believe that the ANC is far too infected by systemic corruption for even Cyril Ramaphosa to fix it, and if you are also one of those who believe the EFF's economic policies will be catastrophic for the economy, what are your options in May's general election?
If you're a conservative Christian and you're okay with its anti-gay rhetoric, you can vote for the African Christian Democratic Party. ACDP MP Steve Swart did a really good job in debates and portfolio committees.
If you can shake off your suspicion that the IFP is primarily a Zulu-speaking interest group, that's also an option. Two of its MPs were among the brightest and most hard working in the house: Mkhuleko Hlengwa and Liezl van der Merwe.
Then there's the UDM aka Bantu Holomisa's party. Many might feel that the role it had played in reinstating the ANC in Nelson Mandela Bay and the character of the UDM mayor, Mongameli Bobani, make it less attractive. But Holomisa himself and at least one of its MPs, Nqabayomzi Kwankwa, made really good contributions in Parliament.
Mosiuoa Lekota's Cope is a shadow of its former self, but he and fellow MP Deidre Carter were sober voices during the last Parliament. Lekota has been brave in advocating real non-racialism and constitutionalism at a time that these concepts have become very unpopular. But he seems to be aiming at getting a number of conservative Afrikaner votes and has made common cause with AfriForum and even Steve Hofmeyr, so his chances of getting a significant number of black votes are miniscule.
The Freedom Front Plus can only be your cup of tea if you're a conservative Afrikaner nationalist – or an opportunist like Peter Marais. Still, MP Corné Mulder was one of the most knowledgeable members in the house and a master of the rules of Parliament.
Reasonable to vote for small parties
I'm not sure I buy the argument of the bigger parties that a vote for a small party is a waste. As I've indicated above, some MPs of small parties have made exceptional contributions, which is not something I can say of many majority party MPs.
I think it is perfectly reasonable to vote for a small party if you think that party will say things in Parliament that you want to be said.
Oh, you can also consider Hlaudi Motsoeneng's African Content Movement or the African Transformation Movement of Mzwanele Manyi (who claims the ATM has many more members than the ANC), but my suspicion is that these "movements" revolve around little more than their egos and their resistance to the Ramaphosa faction of the ANC. A party needs only about 30 000 to 50 000 votes (depending on the voter turnout) to get one seat in Parliament.
(Potential BLF voters won't be reading this column, so no need to waste space on it.)
DA pains and complications
So, that leaves us with the DA, the choice of 22,2% of voters during the 2014 general election, up from 12,4% in 2009. Its support grew to 26,9% during the 2016 local elections.
That steep growth curve brought many pains and complications. It made the party leaders ambitious to grow support to beyond the 30% mark. That meant it had to grow significantly in the black constituency, because the party had reached saturation point in terms of the three minority groups. At the same time, it could not afford to lose this support, especially not from white voters from where most party donations and much organisational capacity come from.
The DA managed to grow so fast at least in part because of the strong leadership of Helen Zille, but she stepped back in 2015 and was replaced by Mmusi Maimane, then only 35 years old and a political novice.
The odds were seriously stacked against Maimane. Just two years before his election the EFF was formed. Julius Malema and a desperate Jacob Zuma both contributed to turn the national political culture into a very populist and narrow nationalist one. Maimane's words of tolerance and non-racialism were completely drowned out by radical rhetoric and the re-racialising of society. The more he became tempted to compete in that sphere, the more the conservative and white liberal elements in his party resisted.
A largely hostile media didn't help his cause, while Malema had the opposite experience. Some journalists fell for the EFF's spectacle politics and too many feared that to be seen as "soft" on the DA would expose them to accusations of being racists, self-hating blacks or tools of white monopoly capital. Maimane floundered in the face of the multi-pronged onslaught and the party started losing focus fast.
White DA leaders like federal leader James Selfe, party CEO Paul Boughey and chief whip John Steenhuisen appeared more assertive and influential and Zille were showing serious power withdrawal symptoms. There are just too many centres of power and different camps competing for influence.
DA scandals 'always bigger'
Still, the media always portrays a DA scandal or mistake as much bigger and more serious than an equivalent ANC or EFF scandal – could it perhaps even be a case of the soft bigotry of lower expectations? Differences of opinion inside the party or jockeying for positions are portrayed as existential crises, yet similar phenomena in the ANC are viewed as par for the course. Zille's ill-considered tweets on colonialism and a tax revolt are examples.
A housing or sanitation crisis in a DA-ruled municipality is almost always portrayed as a reflection of the party's so-called preference for white privilege, while similar or worse crises in ANC-led municipalities are often simply blamed on the continued levels of inequality.
One of the DA's strongest appeals to voters is the relatively efficient way it has ruled the Western Cape and Cape Town, but I'm not convinced that it was a good idea to take over the administration of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay with the consent of the EFF. The DA's chances of actually proving that it can govern better were too slim in the short term, especially with the EFF as partner. Perhaps it would have served the party's interests more to have stayed in fierce and principled opposition.
I have a suspicion that the DA will fare a lot better in the provincial election than in the national election in May. Many people trust the DA to govern locally, but nationally many of these will vote for Cyril Ramaphosa. He has successfully sold the idea that a vote for the ANC will not be a vote for the ANC as it was under Zuma, but a new ANC that believes in renewal, clean government and a better life for all. They will vote for the New Dawn.
In general, South Africa's political parties have not been serving our democracy very well. But the three bigger parties, if I can include a 6% party in this group, will be forced to confront their divisions and ideological and style differences after the election.
Back to the choices in May: in the end, if your choice on voting day is between the two biggest parties, you have to ask yourself this question: which ANC, and which DA am I voting for?
*After 12 years of enlightening, challenging and entertaining readers, and giving politicians hell, at his request this is Max du Preez's last contribution as regular columnist for News24. Political analyst Ralph Mathekga will be writing on Tuesdays from next week.