Last week’s opposition get-together at Emperor’s Palace (previously World Trade Centre) in Kempton Park provided fodder for both cheerleaders and cynics about prospects for a post-ANC future in South Africa.
For the sceptics, there was plenty of evidence that this “sideshow”, to quote our esteemed president, will not move the voting dial much in 2024.
His comment came just days before the SA Reserve Bank found that the normal stringent rules for undeclared foreign currency for us lesser folk don’t apply to number one. Courtesy of an inexplicable and confidential Sarb investigation, score it’s Cyril Ramaphosa: 1 — Arthur Fraser and Team RET: 0. However, the real penalty and own goal might be awarded to the Reserve Bank in this process, and its halo has been tarnished in what is described as “a whitewash”.
And given the attention switch this week from local bothers to his preferred role as emollient host to world leaders gathered at the Brics summit, Ramaphosa could, on the sideshow comment, for once, not be accused of overstating matters or underestimating his opponents.
After all, the total votes recorded by the four parties of consequence at the multiparty coalition talks, add up to less than 30%; the declarations of principles and governing arrangements contained in the Multi-Party Charter for South Africa are, in the words of Cope co-founder and former Gauteng premier, Mbhazima Shilowa, “motherhood and apple pie”. Then there were the absentees last week of the alphabet soup parties who crowd the opposition corner of our politics, from the ACDP to the UDM and all acronyms in between.
Yet for opposition true believers, and a raft of despairing citizens, who yearn for the prospects of a South Africa which shakes off the smothering incubus of ANC misrule, last week’s convention offers rays of hope in the gloomy skies of South Africa’s icy winter of dark despair.
While the opposition total vote has not changed much from the stubborn 34% recorded in 1994, though the identity of the parties comprising the leader board has radically altered since then, never has the governing party they confront been as weak and disdained as the ANC is today.
Less conquering juggernaut than lumbering dinosaur, the dilemma of the ANC was crisply summed up in an analysis by DA federal chair Helen Zille.
She argued in a weekend article on News24 that the essential contest in South Africa was between the DA and the EFF, who stood for clearly and radically different philosophies. Her contrarian view seems at odds with the continuing and looking dominance of the ANC (which even in its current state of decay and dissolute corruption, will emerge next year as the largest party, the issue being the size of its voter haul).
Zille explains her analysis with reference to previously dominant parties of yesteryear such as the United Party and National Party, which though now relics of history, in fact governed South Africa from 1910 to 1994.
Comparing the behemoths of our minority rule past to the crippled giant of our majority rule present and future, she writes: “The ANC’s downward trajectory is irreversible, even if it still has at least a decade to run its course … Like a tall tree that develops toxic root fungus, its leaves continued to shimmer in the sunlight long after its fate was sealed.”
And for Zille, the confirmatory evidence in the garden of politics is that the “root fungus of political party is the disintegration of its core philosophy that provides the purpose of its existence”.
Beyond holding power and maintaining patronage and creaming resources of state for the comrades, what, she asks, is the purpose and principle binding the ANC together?
Her closely reasoned, even compelling, analysis has the curious omission of not bearing a single reference to the multiparty opposition convention last week, an event which she did not attend. Because on the face of the convention, if the DA philosophy is ever to be implemented in national government, it will only be the result of a coalition with parties whose principles and philosophy exist outside the blue corner.
But the charter contents actually go beyond the motherhood and apple pie criticism of Shilowa. There are some explicit references to the core blue philosophy of which Zille writes: “Commitments to an open market economy, to federalism and to a merit-based system of public appointments and an explicit rejection of cadre deployment, for example, could never be found in an ANC document and could never be endorsed, for example, by the EFF.”
Another outcome last week, on the topic of the ANC and EFF, was an explicit rejection of both. This was provided in the granular form down to how parties to the charter are obliged not to vote for the election of state president and provincial premiers offered by the ANC or EFF. So any suggested “toenadering” by the DA towards a grand coalition with the ANC after the election appears, on the face of it, to be off-limits.
It would be perhaps tiresome to point out that last week’s event is hardly the first-time opposition realignment has been attempted since 1994.
The DA was formed in 2000 by a full merger between three parties (Democratic Party, New National Party and Federal Alliance). It was, as I can attest as the founding leader, a hugely difficult and fraught exercise, and the scars from it are still on my back.
Yet its formation did lead to a far more consolidated and effective opposition which today is impregnable in its government in the Western Cape, which for example, was not in prospect for the Democratic Party on its own.
After decamping the NNP leadership from the DA, a further attempt to breathe life and hope into the opposition project and to cast off the race label from the DA, a coalition with the IFP (“coalition for change”) was inaugurated between Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and myself. But traditional opposition supporters in KwaZulu-Natal had a very mixed experience under IFP rule in the province. In 2004 the DA actually shed two seats in the legislature and local party leaders, including Durban party boss John Steenhuisen, blamed the coalition for the reversal.
But past performance does not govern future prospects. And last week’s charter and the hype and publicity around it is happening at a moment of deep despair in the country, and the time now seems ever shorter for a step change to salvage South Africa. In that sense the charter makes sense. Momentum is all in politics and the idea of creating a following wind to lift the sails of the opposition is what the exercise is about, beyond the modest numbers on the voting tally board to date.
The next steps though are both crucial and fraught.
The admission of other parties to the set-up will require deft management. The ever-unreliable and weather vane power seekers in the Patriotic Alliance (PA) will provide an acid test of the levels of amity or enmity between the DA and ActionSA. ActionSA wants the PA inside the coalition tent because it eyes the prospect of PA support in its bid to take over the mayoralty of Johannesburg. The DA views the PA with the deepest distrust and suspicion since PA votes have toppled DA mayors in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.
If the charter is to have a fighting chance of offering South Africa a road map out of the dead-end where ANC policies and governance have landed it, then cool heads and a spirit of compromise is crucial.
There is quite a bit of history in opposition attempts to offer an alternative which I have referenced. Indeed, the appropriation of both the Codesa venue and the charter terminology of the multiparty initiative is symbolic.
But history needs to be properly recounted. For example, one of the critics of the multiparty charter, a journalist at Maverick Citizen, Zukiswa Pikoli, claimed that the “motley crew” (her term) behind the convention are hardly in the league of “the Codesa negotiations led by giants such as Nelson Mandela, Chris Hani and Helen Suzman”. Nice names to throw around, save for the fact that despite their important roles in history, Hani and Suzman were not involved in the detailed negotiations at Codesa and afterward, and Mandela, indispensable to the overall project, arrived at the venue only at the commencement and towards the end of a two-year process.
The actual work and detailed compromises were hashed out by other figures. Two of whom, Joe Slovo (ANC) and Dawie de Villiers (NP) served often as alternating chairs of the plenary sessions.
At one difficult moment towards the conclusion of events in 1993, De Villiers, a former Springbok rugby captain, drawing from his days as a star scrumhalf, asked delegates: “Can we lift ourselves above ourselves?”
That is the question the multiparty opposition leadership must answer.