The welcome fragmentation of South Africa’s politics

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

This article was first published by Business Brief in April/May 2024 issue

SA should be given more credit for building an inclusive democracy within 40 years of the 20th century’s last system of institutionalised racism.

By studying structural differences, I have asserted in previous columns how SA may not follow its northern neighbour Zimbabwe into becoming a wasteland.

One of these reasons may be the diversity of political participation. SA is not a small, ethnically homogeneous fiefdom with which the ruling party can play. If it were, it may have been easier to capture the apparatus of state.

Comparing SA to Zimbabwe’s fall from grace is common. Whilst that stimulates action against such a fate being repeated, there are also positive differences.

The Zimbabwean experience is one of the darkest stories of regression in modern history. Soon after Zimbabwean independence in 1982, Mugabe’s fifth brigade, a North Korea-trained unit of the Zimbabwean armed forces, unleashed mass murder (‘The Gukurahundi’) on the peoples of Zimbabwe’s largely Ndebele south. A large part of this exercise was to force the Ndebele into line, to dissuade and crush support for the opposition ZAPU and its armed wing ZIPRA, and to line the apparatus of state with those loyal to the regime.

Independent historian Stuart Doran states,

“… the atrocities were driven from the top by Zanu-PF in pursuit of specific political objectives… massacres were but one component of a sustained and strategic effort to remove all political opposition within five years of independence.”

And so, Mugabe’s ruling party rhetoric had racial undercurrents. The Guqurahundi met the technical definition of a genocide. International observers claim that at least 20,000 were killed.

Half a century later, the same party remains in power. In August 2023, Zimbabwe held its five-yearly election sham, with the ‘liberation’ movement Zanu-PF resorting to increasingly blunt freedom suppression tactics over time.

South of the border, SA’s national election will take place in May 2024. Around 200 parties will contest the national ballot.

So, in independent Zimbabwe’s first few years, a genocide was launched against the country’s largest minority. By contrast, in democratic SA’s first few years, a world-renowned Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established, which went a long way to healing social and historic divisions within the country. That showed that SA was serious about building cohesion. SA’s Social Research Foundation, a think tank, is in possession of a wealth of evidence confirming that race relations among ordinary South Africans, remain good overall.

Later, in the 2000s, the invasions of white owned farms in Zimbabwe served partly to cement the ruling party’s grip, as farm workers supported the main opposition party. By contrast, in SA, opponents of the ANC are integrated into political structures and are free to exercise their politics. Voters are spoiled for choice in this year’s election.

And so, I wonder if the flourishing of a diversity of political entities in SA may be favourable to its democratic integrity in the long run. This is a country of an immensely complicated ethno-political picture, with 12 official languages and a myriad of ethnicities. SA is not an easy country in which to become a dictator.

The ANC’s broad church

It is well known that the governing ANC is a very broad church. The party’s four longstanding leaders are from three of the country’s ethnicities. In 1994, ethno-nationalist Zulu leaders were threatening not to partake in the first election. Mandela coopted these groups and SA’s first election went ahead.

Thirty years on, with SA remaining a free society, rather than wreaking a reign of terror on the masses, the dominant party looks to be fracturing. The three most populous provinces are likely to fall to opposition hands or coalitions this year.

Former President Jacob Zuma has now endorsed a new party, uMkhonto we Sizwe, plunging the ANC’s vote in the populous Kwazulu-Natal province to as low as 25%.

The ANC broad church is also a reason that the dreaded doomsday scenario of a tie-up between the ANC and the firebrand EFF may well not happen, as many within the ANC oppose this.

Far from the liberation party strengthening and becoming a one-party militarised state, the ANC has experienced defectors; this has served to split the vote, and it will experience more. Further infighting after patronage networks dry up from the loss of power will hasten its shattering into an enfeebled party with only some regional strongholds.

Story in numbers

ANC share of the vote at simultaneous national and provincial elections (three major provinces).
Current polling data in these graphs were provided to the author by the Social Research Foundation (SRF) and prepared by the author. Current polling data are not a projection of election results.

Source: Social Research Foundation (SRF)

Source: Social Research Foundation (SRF)

Source: Social Research Foundation (SRF)

Source: Social Research Foundation (SRF)

Data provided to the author by the Social Research Foundation (SRF) and prepared by the author using Datawrapper

The Western Cape

SA’s opposition governed Western Cape (WC) looks and feels entirely different to the rest of the country. A political alternative allows the WC to be somewhat sheltered from the mismanagement of central government, and it already represents an attractive investment sub-destination.

It is good for the country’s democratic integrity that the conversation on WC independence gets louder. It adds to the forces of divergence of political power from the centre, weakening the dominant party. Calls for independence and autonomy in other parts of the country, and SA’s many smaller political ecosystems, statelets and citadels are strengthened by this.

Successful governance in the WC provides an image of possibility that can be slowly replicated in other provinces. It may even provide leverage. In 2034, the DA-brokers an arrangement that the smaller pro-independence parties drop claims for independence, in return for greater autonomy and other pro-market demands at a national level.

Consider these to be centrifugal forces, emanating out of from the edges. Take the European Union, the world’s most successful project in supranational governance. Its motto is ‘United in Diversity’. This is not hyperbole. It is the only way the entity can operate. Fiscally prudent Northern Europeans argue with more spendthrift southerners on the workings of a monetary union and agreement is thrashed out.

What happens in one corner impacts the others as destinies are intertwined. This also increases transparency and accountability. All eyes on the democracy-erosion corner (Hungary) as fines are enforced from the centre until there is compliance.

No choice

Put simply, the ANC’s opponents are too diverse and too many to track or to have killed in a car crash in the Drakensburg. The opposition is not reliant on one single party, that if infiltrated, weakens the opposition across the board. That was the case in Zimbabwe. Furthermore, the more parties exist, the more election monitors there are.

Democracy is alive and well in SA as outlined above. Perhaps SA’s sociology is such that embracing liberal democracy and constitutionalism will be the only way that it can work. SA may in time provide a blueprint for the many other societies across the world dealing with similar sociological challenges.

Analysts would state that the SA parliament would in time become like the German parliament: a large centre right party (33%), a large centre left party (33%), a far-left party (15%), with other smaller, ethno-nationalist parties (18%).

The one potential downside is that the SA parliament so fragmented that it becomes hard to get anything done. Italian politics resembles this, and by extension Italian economic malaise. Yet the prevalence of a few large parties in SA may guard against this.

It would be a small price to pay. The counterfactual is that one party becomes all-conquering, gradually chips away at the constitution, and establishes a one-party state. And that would be it until the end of time.


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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