Coalition of the Damned: 5 Reasons Why Noone Should Care about the Collective for Democracy

2013-12-18 07:02

Yesterday it was announced that five of South Africa’s smaller opposition political parties (COPE, the FF+, the ACDP, the UCDP and the IFP) had signed an agreement to form a ‘Coalition for Democracy.’ The reason for this cooperation was expressed differently by representatives of each of the coalition partners. In effect, the parties believe that in their coming together, they stand a greater chance to unseat the ANC and/or usurp the DA than they did fighting the election alone.

Whether this means that in the next few months the parties will effectively merge (with a single leadership and uniform structures) or that they will fight the elections separately (and then come together after the election) is unclear. Based on the reporting, it seems that the parties will present a universal slate of candidates in order to fight the election under their collective banner. It seems, therefore, based on South Africa’s present electoral law, that they will fight the election as a single party.

As the Mail & Guardian reported:

‘The Collective for Democracy will soon announce their team of potential representatives that will draw on the best people within the parties while focusing on corruption free, competent and trusted candidates.’

Further, the Mail & Guardian reported that the Collective for Democracy had agreed on 20 points of action that would form its programme in government. The Coalition further stated that it believed this was a good idea because South Africa was diverse and this marriage would best represent South Africans in general.

Suffice it to say, this new development will amount to not much more than the column inches it will be afforded in the next few days. Here are five reasons why no one should care:

Firstly, and most importantly, the parties are politically irrelevant. In total, they accumulated 14% of the vote in 2009. In 2011, just two years later, they achieved 7% of the vote. While some may argue that there is a significant difference in voter turn-out between national and local elections, the fact remains that on a popular voting score, their vote halved in two years. In that context, this collective seems aimed at attempting to stop eventual decline. Why though, as someone trying to sail in troubling seas, you would tie yourself to other sinking ships is beyond me. It is unlikely that they will threaten the DA as the official opposition or the ANC as the ruling party.

Secondly, while it is commendable that the parties have an agreed programme of action, they have no common and underlying philosophy. To this end, the present coalition government in the United Kingdom is an excellent example of why a common programme alone is not good enough. While both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats agreed that they should come together in order to cut the ballooning deficit left by Labour, the programme is not enough to (a) sustain them and (b) address unforeseen issues. As is often seen, the easy issues can agreed on. But whether to increase tuition fees or support gay marriage (i.e. issues that go straight to the heart of ideologically-loaded questions), the parties are as far apart from each other as if they were sitting on opposite benches in Parliament. Indeed, one of the favourite tactics of the Labour opposition is to contrast the chasm-like differences between leading figures, i.e. colleagues, of the coalition.

The underlying philosophical base which unites a party is what allows it to overcome these challenges. When things get rough – and there is a disagreement over policy – a return to first principles is what can allow the party to resolve it more easily. Sometimes, even where first principles are settled, like in the DA, that may not be enough. Look at how various ‘liberal’ strands within the DA took each other apart over the party’s support for affirmative action and economic empowerment. Where separate parties come together in the absence of such philosophy, with their own traditions and ways of doing things, the chances of damaging conflict arising is significantly multiplied. This is especially the case where the philosophy of the constituent parts may be opposed to each other.

It is interesting to note though that these parties are, in fact, united by different strands of a single ideology: nationalism. Some are religious nationalists (ACDP, UCDP), cultural/racial nationalists (IFP, FF+) and others are merely confused as to whether they are liberal democrats or Marxist-Lenninists like they were in their previous lives (COPE). Nationalism in this sense is not enough to hold them together though: each represents a pernicious nationalism that seeks to serve a mutually exclusive constituency which gains at the expense of the other.

And before anyone bores me with the rebuttal that these parties will be bound together by their commitment to a nebulous ‘constitutionalism,’ please get Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Pieter Mulder to give their positions on equality and positive discrimination in employment and then please reconcile that in terms of a single party policy. Thanks.

Thirdly, and related to the reason above, the Tripartite Alliance’s current internal turmoil shows us exactly why this cannot work. A broad church that sticks together in the absence of a compelling goal that allows internal dissent to be quietened is unlikely to stick together. This is more likely to be the case where the ‘unifying’ goal is open to interpretation and differentiated methods of achievement. Let us examine the Tripartite Alliance: it was formed to defeat Apartheid; the desire to create of a non-racial and non-sexist society was enough to merge liberals and communists (working together now – they could disagree on the details later); even though there was minor disagreement on tactics (i.e. when force should be used), the strategy to bring about the downfall of Apartheid was more or less settled. (Note, I am deliberately ignoring the debate within the struggle movement over majority rule and constitutionalism – history indicates what the hegemonic view was)

But now, in an era when as malicious an enemy like the Apartheid regime is no longer present, even identifying the eradication of poverty as the unifying goal – while meritorious in principle – is meretricious in application. Those same people who could bury the hatchet over the big picture now even disagree over what the big picture should be. Hence you have the likes of NUMSA stuck in a socialist time-warp on one hand and those (few) free-marketeers in the ANC on the other.

Fourth, the selection of candidates and internal operations of the parties varies significantly. Given that the elites of each party will, no doubt, seek a return to office, it is clear that an almighty battle for the soul of the new party will ensue.

Like how Tony Leon detailed Martinus van Schalkwyk’s internal machinations within the DA to boost his influence – and that of his coterie of ex-NP colleagues – in his book autobiography, On The Contrary, it is likely that each of the coalition parties will effectively form a battalion that will seek to outdo their partners in being the dominant internal force. This is owing to the fact that dominant force within the party can determine the party’s outlook, which candidates are selected, who gets jobs and so on. Patronage is a powerful tool.

Ask Mr Lekota. It is no coincidence that after the euphoric launch of his party, he fought so bitterly to ensure his – and his faction’s – dominance within COPE against Mbazima Shilowa. It is thus breath-taking why he should subject himself and his conflict-weary supporters to yet another Stalingrad-like situation.

And this is not unique to him: Buthelezi (IFP), Mulder (FF+) and Meshoe (ACDP) have each led their parties nearly unilaterally for decades in some cases. It is inconceivable that they are going to magnanimously give up their individual fiefdoms to some other entity that could push them – and their supporters – out of office. Make no mistake, the elites of each individual party will work hard to save their own skin. And their supporters – especially those at the fringe – will work even harder to make sure that their original party apparatchiks are the winners in the internal battle so that they can benefit the most when the spoils are divided. This is especially the case where the parties merge on the basis of equality and there is no hegemon that has the absolute advantage in settling such matters.

This predisposition to internal conflict then, as we have seen with all of them, means that the voters are largely ignored. And in turn, again as we have seen with all of their individual decimations, the voters will ignore them too.

Fifth, this coalition ignores the DA and also makes no space for the EFF and Agang.

While I do not suggest that Agang is a political force to be reckoned with – I have written extensively to this effect – it has, to its credit, eclipsed all of these existing parties within the few months since its launch.

The EFF has done this on an even grander scale (even to the detriment of Agang). Some may argue that Julius Malema and the EFF is the Lekota/COPE of this electoral cycle, but they would miss the obvious difference: Malema is wildly more popular than Lekota ever was and the EFF has adopted a populist, radical and different agenda to the ANC. It is not like COPE, it is not the ANC-lite, a party of has-beens attempting to adopt the same ground. It is similar in its historical roots but more differentiated and thus appealing to the electorate in a different way.

And as to the DA’s exclusion, I hope that it will never be part of this sorry grouping. It has shown that it, more so than any other party, is increasing its presence in all communities and is the only party to increase its support consistently.  To ignore this fact, and thus exclude the DA, means that this coalition lacks the machinery, skill and fighting skill that the DA has which has seen it grow from 1.7% in 1994 to 24% in 2011.

Even if my analysis is wrong and the parties will only form a loose coalition after they fight the election individually, that aids their case no further. In the first instance, they are likely to be even more irrelevant individually (as 2009 and 2011 results show). Further, much of the analysis I have given here still applies. Especially because that situation more likely mirrors the coalition government in the UK. And though some positive outcomes may be achieved by working together, the attrition of support that both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have experienced in recent months as a result of having to aggregate their interests because of a coalition indicates just what trouble will be on the horizon.

Ultimately, I am not opposed to coalitions. They will be an essential ingredient in realigning our politics. It is probably through a system of merger and acquisitions that a new party will emerge to make our democracy more competitive: by beating back ANC hegemony and, at best, defeating it outright. But coalitions such as these rankle me. They are superficial, opportunistic and meaningless. They are a coalition of the damned and damned to irrelevance they should be.

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