Might the ancient Greek myth of Tantalus offer a modern warning to the warring tribes in the ranks of SA’s opposition parties? 

Tantalus, readers might recall, was punished by the gods for sacrificing his son for a feast and was doomed to stand for the rest of his life in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with both the drink and the food forever just beyond his grasp. He was, in other words, mid-waist in water, dying of thirst.

The tantalising prospect revealed in very recent polls suggests the once-mighty ANC crashing down to an earthly low of about 40% in voter support. This suggests that in less than two years’ time, the date of the national election, an opposition coalition could oust the government.

Or, like the Greek myth, will the prospect remain forever beyond the grasp of a fragmented opposition?

No easy answers here. In an April speech at a BizNews conference, DA executive chair Helen Zille suggested the prospects of building a nonracial, constitutional and market-orientated government would be far better with “a strong DA (with more than 20% of the vote) as the bedrock of a coalition”. In her view, the worst case scenario would be “a huge proliferation of tiny parties and ‘independents’ elected at national level, replicating the profound instability already apparent in many municipalities across the country”.

Of course, it is easy to dismiss Zille’s warning as speaking to her own book (given that she views the DA as the “anchor tenant” of any prospective national coalition) and that this warning tamps down the prospects of new emerging political forces.

The joy and curse of the extreme proportional system SA adopted is that it requires just 0.25% of voters to elect a single MP. This has, until recently, been somewhat moot, as voters were obliged to place their mark in favour of a single political party, albeit that some of the tiny parties represented in parliament were little more than localised, personality or ethnically driven extensions of their leaders’ personalities.

Now with the local equivalents of Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all heading up political movements, from the former chief justice to the former editor of Business Day, the political choices before SA are likely to multiply at the precise moment the window for change narrows.

A lot of airtime has been taken by civil society efforts to enable independents to contest the next election as stand-alone candidates. As an exercise in civic-mindedness these efforts, leading to a rewriting of the electoral laws, are commendable. But in terms of realpolitik it is not unfair to ask exactly how the presence of scattered individual MPs, representing no-one but themselves and a scattered voting pool across the country, will dynamise the change needed to politically remove the government. Why, in simple terms at the next election, will it be more useful to use your single vote to elect one independent MP, rather than use the same vote to elect a list of many MPs (provided by the larger parties) who will act in concert to implement a programme of action and offer the prospect of ousting the current government?

The cascade of crises confronting the land — soaring unemployment, rampant criminality, collapsed services and shuttered infrastructure — suggest that only a radical shift in policies and those charged with governing the country will salvage something from the wreckage of these times.

And yet the ruling ANC offers no prospect of any change, simply the suggestion of doubling down on its current offer, which has brought us to this impasse. Its leadership reminds one of Benjamin Disraeli’s description of William Gladstone’s administration in 1872. “Behold, a range of extinct volcanoes; not a flame flickers upon a single pallid crest,” he thundered to the government he was soon to oust.

It is in the small details of the ANC leadership’s indifference to popular sentiment and public suffering that its malaise is signalled. How could the “people’s government” think it fine for the speaker of parliament (herself in a grace and favour job, having botched the response to the July 2021 looting of KZN) to spend R1.5m on new BMWs even though parliament had two years before taken delivery of four Land Rover SUV’s worth R2.8m? Or the president himself ordering the hiring of an SAA jet at a cost of R1.6m for just 14 passengers, for a return trip to Kinshasa — or four times the cost of the presidential jet bill — which was unavailable because the SANDF neglected to pay just R300,000 for a flight database service.

If the next election for the first time in decades offers the prospect of real change, some hard thinking is needed by the fragmented opposition forces.

Will they signal upfront to the voters how they will co-operate, assuming the current polls are indicative of a real shift of voter sentiment?

How, to reprise Zille, will the unedifying squabbles at local level (witness the row besieging the opposition coalition in Tshwane) not be replicated at a national level?

What are the precise terms for any opposition party going into business with the ANC post the next election? Herman Mashaba of Action SA is the only opposition leader on record to rule this out under all and any circumstances. But his bromance with the EFF hardly reassures the bulk of opposition supporters whose fear of the EFF probably exceeds, by some measure, their distaste for the ANC.

And the DA has explicitly ruled out any future deal with the EFF but remains open (I think) to some form of arrangement with some element of the ANC subject to stringent conditions.

And of myriad other wannabes who will crowd the next ballot paper? Where precisely will they stand, and with whom, if there is no clear outright winner at the polls in 2024?

I think something bolder than the shadow boxing and some clear thinking are needed well ahead of the next election if opposition supporters are to be galvanised to vote and traditional ANC voters (most of the electorate) are either to switch allegiances or simply abstain from voting, the net effect on the outcome being the same thing.

There are two international examples, both carrying political health warnings which offer some prospects of hope for the opposition here, going against a political monolith which for decades has governed the country.

The most recent is from Kenya, where the recently disputed presidential election (the results of which are being adjudicated by its supreme court). Their underdog candidate William Ruto beat better-known political dynast Raila Odinga, who was backed by the outgoing president. But in the margin of Ruto’s victory by about 230,000 votes lies a warning to political favourites everywhere: 600,000 voters in Odinga’s home turf, the Luo-dominated western counties of Lake Victoria, simply did not turn out to vote. Had they done so, Odinga would easily have been elected. And Ruto, a member of an ethnic minority (Kalenjin), prevailed in a country once a byword for ethnic divide-and-rule politics. Exiting president Uhuru Kenyatta could not persuade his fellow Kikuyus to support his candidate, Odinga.

Israel offers the hope and the warning of creating a coalition of opposites in a deeply divided country, united by only their determination to oust the dominant political force in the land. Thus was born a government in June 2021 which embraced eight parties and spanned the historical divides and enmities between Arab and Jew, moderates and extremists. The sole unifying factor was to end the political and, in the coalition view, corrupt reign of Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu. On the plus side it did for a while remove Netanyahu — the major force in Israeli politics for more than two decades — from power and to pass a budget, the first in two years. But it collapsed after a fractious year in office, and Israelis head back to the polls in November for the fifth time in just three years.

As the coalition unravelled in June 2022, campaign strategist George Birnbaum told the Financial Times: “There were too many competing ideologies. They were united by their hatred of Netanyahu, but the day after [you have formed a government] you have to govern.”

We are witnessing a local example of this in the besieged anti-ANC coalition formed in Tshwane in November 2021. But opposition forces here need to heed the warning signs in the run-up to the national elections in 2024, or else their supporters will remain — like old Tantalus — mid-waist in water drowning of thirst. And the low hanging fruit of wresting national power will remain out of reach.

Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA