Is three a crowd?
A political landscape that has three strong political positions would benefit SA, writes
The recently concluded US presidential elections have highlighted one of the great drawbacks of that country’s twoparty system – it creates polarisation that deeply divides the nation. It was one of the most acrimonious campaigns in history, and the sight of protesters demonstrating in the streets even before Donald Trump has been sworn in does not bode well.
There is even talk of challenging him in the electoral college when it meets on December 19. This is usually just a formality, but there are member voices saying that, as individuals, they can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump. So, could there be changes?
Speaking of change, momentum is gaining to scrap the electoral college system altogether, as part of reforming democracy. Hillary Clinton and Al Gore both lost elections while winning the popular vote, and this does seem absurd.
Going back in history, one has to note that America was not a two-party system from the outset. Back in the days of George Washington, it was the Americans against the British – not the Democrats against the Republicans. The emergence of the two-party system came several decades later, in the debates between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
To apply this to the evolution of democracy in South Africa, an American proverb comes to mind: “There is no education in the second kick of a mule.”
In other words, we can adapt our own way forward, by the misfortunes of others. Or we can fall into the same hole that they did.
The race factor has complicated the emergence of multiparty democracy in South Africa. It started, of course, with the ANC unifying black tribes more than 100 years ago to counter the “divide and conquer” strategy of colonialism. United we stand, divided we fall – so much so that many might prefer to go with the one-party state model of socialism.
At first, once democracy arrived in 1994, white voters mostly supported the National Party, although there was already a third party rising. Before long, the Nats folded and we were left with two major parties – the ANC and the DA – and several minor parties such as the United Democratic Movement, the Freedom Front Plus and the African Christian Democratic Party.
And there was the SA Communist Party (SACP), but it had been sheltering inside the ruling alliance, largely because of the great white fear of communism. The assassination of Chris Hani is an indicator of that danger. But it has turned around now, with half a dozen Cabinet ministers being from the SACP – and most of them are white. In spite of the hypocrisy of communists becoming affluent cronies, it can be said that the SACP is truly nonracial. It has always been bound by ideology, and is thus mixed race.
Remember when Mosiuoa Lekota starting talking about a “divorce” and the ground shook? Various opposition leaders then welcomed the Congress of the People to the political landscape. By the time Agang SA was formed, the idea of new parties emerging was not so earth-shattering. But all these parties were crowding around the centre. Only the DA could be seen to be further to the right. The left was conspicuously absent as people realised that the ANC had “sold out” to crony capitalism.
Enter the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which was the first party to stake a claim on the left of centre. Other than the SACP, of course, which was now conflicted in the ruling alliance. This provoked some soul-searching among the true leftists and soon you had some unions deciding to leave. Since then, they have formed a new federation outside the bounds of the ruling alliance.
Since the poor election results this year, there is now some serious introspection going on within the SACP. It may contest the 2019 election in its own right. Or are we watching the emergence of a leftist or labour party? One can see that a constellation could be forming on the left that will include the SACP, the EFF and the new post-Cosatu labour federation. Maybe a coalition at first? Maybe called the United Left?
A similar thing happened in Canada, which has ended up being a three-party democracy – not a divisive two-party system like the US. During the Great Depression, in response to biting unemployment and poverty, a new party was formed in western Canada called the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). It went on to form a provincial government in Saskatchewan that was re-elected to five consecutive terms. The CCF was the first social democratic party to be elected into power in North America. Its policies were influential – in fact, you can probably trace the DNA of Obamacare back to the CCF as it is just the latest incarnation of what the CCF dreamt of. Then, after several decades, the CCF merged with the Canadian Labour Federation, which was a union of unions – not a political party. But only western Canada was industrialised, so you also had the merger of west and east into the New Democratic Party.
History is repeating itself, and, to avoid the second kick of the mule, South Africa should aim for a three-party system. A new (labour?) party on the left, with the ANC holding the centre and the DA over on the right gives voters a choice – without the acrimony and resentment that a two-party system breeds. We are already experiencing some level of government-by-coalition. Very often in a three-party system, the third party holds the “balance of power”, and we are already starting to see the positive effects that can have on accountability and service delivery.
Another phenomenon is that voters “hedge their bets”. They vote for one party on a national level and then opt for a different party in the local elections. This is another way to achieve checks and balances. You can’t expect the judiciary and the chapter 9 institutions to bear the total burden of transparency. Try having one party supervise the other. We are already seeing this in some metros that have slipped away from ANC hegemony. There are so many more permutations and combinations in a three-party system. And it means that parties have time for introspection and can refresh themselves from time to time. In Britain, there are basically three parties too – labour, liberal and conservative. The biggest challenge in South Africa will be to get a system that won’t always line up along the usual fault lines of race. The DA is already claiming to be the most nonracial party, although the SACP has the best record so far on that score. If one race only has one choice when it comes time to vote, how will we ever move towards nonracialism? This is one danger in the EFF’s land invasion approach to wealth redistribution – it pits blacks against whites. While the history of South Africa is one of segregation, apartheid and exploitation, good leadership gets people to see the solution, not just the problem. Leaders should take us forwards not backwards. And if we have three major parties offering a menu of options, we can start pulling together for change, and get past the acrimony. I am speaking of the process here, without backing off from the dream destination of equality and nonracialism. Stephens is executive director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership
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