The late former leader of the parliamentary opposition, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, once said that to do his job “you need iron in the soul”. That phrase provides the title for an interesting book I read recently on the leaders of the official opposition here, authored by Unisa academic Alex Mouton.

An even bleaker prospect was offered by the United Party MP Gideon Jacobs. He noted that being leader of the opposition is “the most thankless of tasks, probably the most difficult job in SA. Everyone is ready to find fault, few are available to help.” Having held that post for eight years, a postapartheid record, I can attest to the truth of that observation.

The current leader of the official opposition, John Steenhuisen, is the eighth person to occupy the post since 1994. The turnover since 2007 has been rapid. Only time confers the judgment asked by Slabbert on possessing the necessary steel for the task, and as the Mouton book (which ends its study in 1993) suggests, he threw in the towel too early to be judged successful.

The book, incidentally, provides fascinating insights into the white men (as all occupants of the post were until 2011) in what is the “losers’ line-up” in our politics.

Who knew, for example, that the hard-line leader of the opposition when I first entered parliament, Andries Treurnicht (Conservative Party), was an indecisive prevaricator often reduced to tears of rage and unhappiness in private, while to the outside world his rejectionist extreme conservatism projected him as the “Lion of the North”? Or, more remarkably, as an opponent of sexual relations across the colour line, that his daughter had an affair with an African American? The public face versus the private complexity.

Of course, one of the constituent elements of the DA, the New National Party, also reached that total, but that only two parties since 1994 have obtained one fifth of the votes points to the arduousness of the task.

But before Steenhuisen and the party could celebrate, or he could show his mettle, the party was dragged into a new controversy, which had nothing to do with its core job of holding government to account.

Helen Zille, former party leader and current chair of the DA federal council, posted another controversial tweet. And so the party was enmeshed in a truly extraordinary fight and race-baiting war over her quite wrong assertion that there have been more racial laws after apartheid ended than before.

Another distracting and divisive blow-up now takes the party from the front foot of its energetic pushback against government overreach during the Covid-19 lockdown to a defensive crouch on its commitment to nonracialism.

Zille was elected to this post last year by a healthy margin, against a background of intense racial mobilisation against her within the party, in part because she promised “to stay in my lane” and busy herself with back-room administration.

However the current imbroglio is resolved or finessed, it should not detract from one essential issue: no democracy worth its name can endure without an effective and independent opposition, and SA’s precarious democratic project certainly needs the best one on offer if it is to succeed, even if its prospects of achieving state power are remote. You need to go back over 70 years, to DF Malan, to find a leader of the opposition who by process of a general election eventually became head of government.

In fact, in addition to the electoral speed bump the DA hit in 2019, even on its best day at the polls (in 2014 under Zille) it still trailed the ANC, corruption and Zuma notwithstanding, by 40 percentage points.

The only other opposition party of significance here, the EFF, has caught an even worse virus. Not only has social distancing and virtual parliamentary sessions rendered its usual vandalism moot, but its enmeshment in the VBS Mutual Bank bank corruption scandal has made nonsense of its anti-graft stance. Should the somnambulant National Prosecuting Authority ever get around to arresting politicians, the EFF is likely to see some of its leading lights in the dock.

The EFF’s extremist stance on the lockdown, the antithesis of populism verges on political idiocy for a party that campaigned last time out with the slogan “Our land and jobs”. Calling for an even harsher closing of the economy beyond the current measures, which have likely thrown 50% of the potential working population into unemployment, is not just unsupported by science. It also suggests the party is flailing about and utterly ignoring the core interests of its voters, even if they amount to only 10% of the voting population.

Jacobs suggested that the reason leading the opposition was the most difficult job in SA was because “the advantages are nearly all with the government”. The leader of the opposition “can only make speeches”. Or, as Tony Blair defined the difference: “When I was opposition leader I would wake up in the morning and ask ‘what can I say’. As prime minister, I now ask ‘what can I do’.” Invading Iraq on a false prospectus is probably not the best advertisement for this proposition, but it distils the essence of a power dilemma.

On the other hand, with the fractious governing ANC likely to crash the country into the economic rocks, and perhaps into the hands of the IMF, all bets are off as regards how the political kaleidoscope might eventually settle. And it is precisely why the opposition here should get its house in best order.

In February we had no idea of the reach and shattering effect of the coronavirus. Indeed, in the two showpiece parliamentary speeches that month, the state of the nation address and the budget, not a word on the plague was offered by either president or finance minister. In last week’s emergency budget it was front and centre of Tito Mboweni’s speech and has been in all Cyril Ramaphosa’s national addresses since March.

If the effect of the pathogen has been as extreme as this, no-one with any confidence can foretell its long or even its medium-term political impact.

In the short term there is this picture on offer: lost in the detail of the emergency budget was a R2bn transfer by the Treasury from the unsuspecting taxpayer into the coffers of Sanral, to make up the shortfall caused by the E-tolls boycott in Gauteng. Yet the same week there were reports that in the catastrophically administered Eastern Cape, where the ANC has enjoyed uninterrupted power since 1994, patients were fighting each other for scarce oxygen.

On the one hand, the carcass of failed policies is resuscitated with the endless bailout by a state that has run out of money; on the other, the basics of decent government is offered only in the breach. If anyone doubted the need for vigorous and effective opposition, this lamentable snapshot should still the dissent.

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

Featured in The Business Day