THE hole in this country’s party politics needs urgent filling. But how that could happen is far from clear.
Party politics would much more fruitful without the hole, which is created by the fact that the African National Congress’s support is dropping but there is no other party for which former ANC voters are willing to vote. In the 2021 local elections, when the ANC dropped below 50% for the first time, its share of the vote was still more than double that of the second biggest party (the Democratic Alliance) and more than four times that of the third biggest (the Economic Freedom Fighters).
The Cost of the Hole
This explains why local government coalitions have been so fragile.
Where the ANC is the biggest party, other parties are not eager to form a coalition with it, partly because they believe it is discredited and also partly because it is in decline. But the gap between it and the other parties is so great that a coalition which excludes the ANC can usually be formed only by bringing together many parties. This, in turn, gives small parties bargaining power because they can sink the coalition if they leave it – which some do if they think they can get a better deal from a rival coalition.
The hole may also make it impossible to form a government after next year’s elections if the ANC vote drops below 50%. The ANC may again fail to find partners and the chances of a non-ANC coalition were torpedoed by the Democratic Alliance’s ‘moonshot’ pact which declares war on the EFF. The numbers tell us that no non-ANC government will be possible unless the EFF at least tolerates it.
It also damages confidence in democratic politics. If the ANC had a rival which might win enough support to form a government, people who are disillusioned with it would simply shift their support to its rival. But, since there is no rival, they may well give up on politics, since they feel that there is no party which speaks for them. This may explain why, even though democracy here works well for those able to use it, it is constantly criticised.
When a party which has governed for three decades faces the probability of losing office as voter support dwindles (if not next year, then at the election after it), we would expect this to refresh party politics, opening it to new energies and ideas. But the hole means that it is more likely to convince many that voting is a waste of time (which, despite some of the claims, we hear, it is not) and so trigger more cynicism.
This is probably the greatest threat to democracy here. Of course, people who give up on parties might enrich democracy by turning to citizen activism. But they might also give up on the hope that taking part in any sort of politics will change anything and so open the way for the anti-democrats who claim that they can solve the problems which politics has failed to address.
The stakes are, therefore, high – as long as the hole persists, the democratic gains of the past three decades will be far more fragile than they would be if we had a vigorous contest for majority voter support. But that does not mean that it is easy to see how the hole may be filled.
The problem is not that we already have many parties and so there is no room for any more.
While commentators often complain that the country has too many parties, important sections of society are not represented by any party. Middle-class black voters ditched the ANC in 2014 but have, in the main, not found a party which, they believe, speaks for them. And the biggest gap is the absence of a party which can champion the concerns of the two-thirds of the country who don’t receive an income from the formal market-place. While all parties – and just about everyone else – insist that whatever they want will help ‘the poor,’ that is simply a ritual: no party speaks for the millions looking in on the formal economy.
But forming a party with any prospect of success is not easy – even for middle-class people who have resources and so certainly not for people in townships, shack settlements or the countryside who don’t earn a wage or receive a private pension.
Parties succeed if they have networks – people who will persuade others to vote for the party and get them to the polls if they do support it. These can rarely if ever be created from scratch and so the parties which make some headway are those who find a way to tap into networks which already exist. Churches and trade unions are two obvious possible networks but, in practice, the parties which have grown are usually those which can tap into the networks which served another party.
There are many examples. COPE may be the target of ridicule now but it did win well over 1 million votes in its first election, only months after it was formed. It did this because it took some ANC networks with it. So did the EFF. The point is best made by comparing the fate of Agang and the National Freedom Party. Agang was formed by Mamphela Ramphele, a household name. But it made no headway. The NFP was formed by former IFP leader the late Zanele Magwaza-Msibi, who was largely unknown. But it did fairly well, winning partial control of several municipalities. Magwaza-Msibi took some IFP networks with her.
In all these cases, networks have enabled new parties to win a respectable share of the vote but not nearly enough to challenge the ANC. This shows the scale of the task facing any party which tries to fill the gap. But what they all do show is that the networks controlled by parties are the likeliest route to some success. This explains why all the new parties which have shown some growth are breakaways from other parties.
Unless someone can break this mould, it suggests that the hole is not likely to be filled until there are some more splits in parties. And, since the ANC remains by far the biggest party, it suggests too that another ANC split will be needed before the hole begins to close. This is no cause for optimism since an ANC rift which creates a party able to challenge it for the right to govern does not seem likely.
There is a faction within the ANC which might be interested in a breakaway – the group which supported former President Jacob Zuma. But election results over the past few years have shown repeatedly that it does not enjoy much support among voters – opponents of this group do much better among voters than faction members do. The chances of a split which could challenge the ANC probably evaporated when this faction failed to win the ANC presidency in 2017 – its opponents might well have broken away and may have commanded widespread voter support. That moment has passed.
But this might just change after next year’s general election. It is possible that the only coalition which will offer a hope of stability is one between the ANC and the DA – if no-one can form a government, next year, there will be strong pressure from powerful interest groups and perhaps sections of the media for the two biggest parties to govern together. If they agree, either or both could split as sections of their party refuse to accept governing with the other.
Whether this happens or not, all this is depressing for democrats who believe that politics should be about citizens deciding what governments should do. It suggests that the future of party politics depends on the politicians alone and that the rest of the country has no option but to watch and hope that their power games produce the change that is needed.
That has been the reality until now. But there is no reason why it must be that way for ever. The fact that the hole exists shows that party politics in this country is changing. It could change enough to ensure that those who want to fill the gap in party politics don’t have to wait for the current crop of politicians to decide what will happen.
The fact that so many feel that they are unrepresented creates an opportunity for new parties to emerge. Political party networks may have been the passport to success until now but they are not the only networks which can enable many people to work for a common goal.
The hole in party politics cannot last forever – particularly since we could see after next year’s election just how much damage it is doing to this country’s party politics. So, it is at least possible that key interests in the society may decide that the hole can last no longer and establish the party needed to fill it.
Prof Steven Friedman is a research professor at the University of Johannesburg, faculty of humanities, politics department, and writes in his personal capacity.