To my mind
A WELL-WORN LIBERTARIAN economic precept holds that the measure of freedom is inevitably the net result of the damage wrought by one party’s choice on another’s interests. The intense volatility in South Africa’s body politic in recent weeks – culminating last week in the obsequious antics of former Defence Minister and ANC chairman Mosiuoa Lekota, who went off to announce a convention for the launch of a new political organisation – may seem a long way off from economic theory. However, the drum-beating between the new ANC leadership and Lekota – who will probably become leader of a new opposition party later this year – along with mounting disaffection among some members of the ruling party over the removal of former President Thabo Mbeki from high office is most certainly the political face of that theory.
In a clear indication of a party hostile to pluralism within its ranks and by a quirk of history, the defeat by Jacob Zuma of Mbeki‘s play for the ANC presidency unleashed the very forces that would result in Mbeki‘s ousting – followed by the resignation of a rump of cabinet ministers and the current push for an alternative political platform.
So far, the cost to the ANC leadership of its hubris has been ephemeral. But the challenge to the party’s historical dominance – if it is to arise – is probably the best proxy of our freedom from the ruling party’s monopoly on democracy since 1994.
For the ANC leadership this is tricky ground. Having relied on the de-legitimisation of opposition politics to preserve unity in its ranks – a reality flowing from the country’s racial history – this strategy may no longer be adequate to beat off an electoral challenge to an absolute majority. But even if it did the prospect of a dominant party usurping the democratic process in Parliament is unlikely to hinge on the legitimacy barriers to a truly competitive democracy.
The fact remains that Lekota – for all his foibles and historical baggage – represents the first and only credible alternative (shorn of the racial hangover that has been the ANC’s key to reproducing its power) to a party that has effectively mythologised democracy in its own image.
And while it may be true a genuinely open political contestation has tended to occur only in societies far less polarised (racially and economically) than ours, what the current change in our body politic lacks in democratic bonhomie it more than makes up for in pragmatic accommodation.
It’s worth emphasising here the fact that the ANC’s opponents may have little chance of galvanising an electoral majority at the polls next year is irrelevant. To some extent, opportunities for a new opposition party (and minority parties generally) will depend on factors outside their control: the extent to which the governing party succeeds in entrenching its own dominance in years to come and whether its support will enable it to govern without the influence of minority parties – or the degree to which a less monolithic ANC will see co-operation with minorities as a means of resolving problems.
What matters is the emergence of a new political paradigm that de-mythologises our understanding of democracy: that de-legitimises a single party’s historical claim to power based on its liberation credentials.
It’s therefore incumbent on all democrats – black and white – to encourage, even actively support, a process that loosens up the tight rein of the ANC and modernises our culture of patronage.
The momentum for change – after 15 years of stalemate – is in Lekota’s public invitation to a very broad constituency of concerned citizens within the ANC and outside its ranks to attend a national convention to discuss the future of this country. The seductive appeal to minority constituencies is an initiative that could herald the closure of an era in which opposition politics was stigmatised by the rhetoric of sectarian interests and racial privilege.
* Editor Colleen Naudé returns next week.