Most casual observers of political developments would probably describe the current situation in a single word: confusion. Many believe this confusion can be resolved if all opposition parties converge into a single large party to challenge the ANC's political dominance. Instead of this happening, they see opposition parties multiplying, with yet another due to be born on or around the 2nd of November, when Mosiuoa Lekota holds his National Convention.
Choice is the essence of democracy. The terms "multi-party" and "democracy" are inseparable. A country cannot be described as a democracy unless there is a choice between different parties espousing policy alternatives.
This truth can lead to the fallacious conclusion that the more parties there are, the more choice there is. In fact, the number of parties on offer does not automatically translate into more choice.
There is actually a clear choice between only two alternative political philosophies for South Africa , each of which will take our country in a fundamentally different direction. These diametrically opposing options can be described, in summary, as the "open, opportunity-driven society for all" versus the "closed, patronage-driven society for some." An analysis of any party in the South African political landscape shows that it fits within the framework of one of these alternatives.
The ANC is the archetype of the "closed, patronage-driven party for some". The defining feature of this kind of party is that the prospects of each individual are determined by his links and access to the small leadership network. The leadership promotes and protects the network (inside and outside the party) and the network, in return, protects and promotes the leadership. It is a closed circle based on reinforcing mutual interests. It inevitably results in corruption and power abuse. Merit and competence are entirely incidental in this kind of system.
The people with prospects are those loyalists who can be relied upon to extend and entrench the network's control over all levers of power both inside the party, and throughout society, and follow its instructions. The approach is known as "the higher law of the party" which is why Jacob Zuma repeatedly says that the ANC is more important than the Constitution. He knows what he is saying, and he means it.
The SA Communist Party takes the "higher law of the party" to its logical conclusion. They do not even bother to stand for election, but just secure safe positions for themselves within the ANC's patronage network so that they can assume their self-styled role in the "vanguard" of the patronage movement.
It has to be said that this tendency did not start with Zuma. Thabo Mbeki's ANC was a demonstration of the closed, patronage-driven network in action. Its defining feature was the abuse of constitutional mechanisms by the ruling clique in the ANC, to deploy its own loyalists to control every state institution, from the SABC to the National Prosecuting Authority and the police, in order to serve its own interests, not the people. Cadre deployment was justified by the "fig leaf" of the ANC's self-serving, crony version of affirmative action, which was just a convenient moral cover for a sinister purpose.
And the network's tentacles extended into the private sector through all manner of corrupt schemes (such as Chancellor House), to entrench the party's influence into the private sector. Business, increasingly realising that the prospects of winning state tenders depended on the favour of the network, quickly adapted to a system that would, if taken to its conclusion, lead to the demise of an open, market economy in South Africa. It is noteworthy that Mosiuoa Lekota never objected to this planned process while Thabo Mbeki was in power.
Things have changed, at least rhetorically, since the tables were turned at Polokwane. Having lost his foothold in the power network, Lekota has spoken out strongly and volubly in favour of the independence of state institutions, and the supremacy of the Constitution. Has he undergone a Damascene conversion? This is possible. After all, there is no quicker way to undergo a conversion to the philosophy of the "open, opportunity-based society" than losing power in a "closed, patronage-based society". Most leading members of the former National Party underwent this conversion, while only a few followed Marthinus van Schalkwyk in his seamless transition to a new closed, patronage network inside the ANC.
But the loss of absolute power often leads people, who previously abused their power, to understand why independent institutions must check power abuse, and why peoples' life chances should depend on opportunities, ability and hard work, rather than their links to a patronage network. Maybe Terror Lekota, Mluleki George, Mbhazima Shilowa and Willie Madisha have indeed learned that lesson. We cannot discount the possibility. If that is so, it would be a most welcome development and will increase South Africa 's democratic prospects immeasurably. We are committed to facilitating the convergence of all parties dedicated to promoting the "open, opportunity society for all".
Whatever its prospects, the Lekota initiative's dilution of the ANC's single party dominance is positive in itself. But it has to be said, the prospects for a genuine "open, opportunity" alternative arising out of the Lekota initiative seem limited by his followers' determination to start what they call "the real ANC" which seeks to brand itself as "more ANC than the ANC". This certainly holds the risk of being yet another closed patronage party seeking the spoils of office for the same purpose that drives the leadership clique of the dominant faction of the old ANC. Time will tell and we will watch the gestation of the new party very closely.
What of South Africa 's other choices? There are, for example, a plethora of parties, (ranging from the Minority Front to the Freedom Front Plus) that openly position themselves in "niche" markets -- a code word for ethnic and racial interests. In addition, there are a range of other parties that try to disguise their "niche", but that are also effectively ethnic parties, seeking to protect and advance the interests of a single minority group. Such parties fall by definition within the "closed patronage-driven" model.
Amichand Rajbansi's Minority Front is the classic example of its kind. It openly canvasses as a party for Indians, promising to find them a cosy nook under the wing of the dominant ANC. The ANC leadership clique rewards this loyalty with minor patronage, positions, and other favours as long as the MF remains sufficiently subservient. This relationship is clearly reflected in the MF's groveling performances in Parliament, which are reminiscent of the play-ground weakling sucking up to the school-yard bully, who demands more and more boot-licking in return for protection. When a new, stronger bully takes control, the MF seamlessly switches allegiance, as it did from Mbeki to Zuma.
This may create an illusion of security for minorities, but it actually achieves the exact opposite. Their inalienable constitutional rights and freedoms are voluntarily sacrificed to the whim of the dominant bully of the day. In an open, constitutional democracy, no-one should have to beg, and barter on a group basis for favours and hand outs. They should claim and protect rights, not only for themselves, but for everyone. Those who voluntarily agree to subordinate their rights in favour of securing patronage for specific representatives of ethnic groups, actually help to undermine the Constitution by entrenching the ruling party's capacity to abuse power.
The FF+ argues that "niche parties" should exist because they can negotiate good deals for the groups they represent, and potentially hold the balance of power in governing coalitions. But they have no power to break the mould of the dominant "closed, patronage" code. They can only work as junior partners within it, bartering and bargaining for favours for some of their members, who are themselves chosen through the closed, patronage networks that are the defining feature of small ethnically based parties.This approach offers no protection for minorities.
On the contrary, as Mugabe's Zimbabwe demonstrated, they have to demonstrate more and more subservience in return for fewer and fewer favours. They have to pick up the crumbs tossed from the table of the dominant patronage party. Furthermore, this approach guarantees that the dominant ethnic group entrenches and abuses its power -- the most certain recipe for wholesale corruption and economic decline.
Instead of protecting the rights and prospects of their members, small ethnic based parties are doing the very opposite. They are reinforcing the closed, patronage society that will always keep ethnic minorities firmly in their submissive and powerless place, at the mercy of the majority forever.
The only real alternative for South Africa , is to build a new majority. A new majority that is based on shared values and principles, not on arbitrary criteria such as ethnicity or race. South Africa needs a new majority founded on the values of the Constitution, which recognizes and protects each person's cultural and language rights, and the right to freedom of association on the basis of these rights. A society where these rights will be far more secure because everyone protects them, not just the minority directly affected.
An open society where each person has the opportunities and the space to shape their own lives, improve their skills and follow their dreams. A society where people are not held back by arbitrary criteria such as sex, religion, or colour, or the prejudice of those in power; where outcomes are linked to opportunity, effort and ability, not special favours; and where real opportunities are extended to more and more people because the government is doing its job as the constitution intended.
This is the alternative the Democratic Alliance promotes. And at present we are the only party in South Africa that promotes this vision in principle, policy and practice.
Of course, our detractors try to brand us as a "white" party. But the truth is our leadership is more diverse than any other party, and so is our membership. Our candidate selection process for the 2009 election seeks to extend our commitment to excellence and equity throughout our party. Following a recent comprehensive political survey, veteran pollster Professor Lawrie Schlemmer concluded that "The Democratic Alliance is the most multi-racial party South Africa has ever had."
So, in the end, despite the plethora of parties, there are only two choices: the closed patronage society for some versus the open opportunity society for all. Understanding this simple fact does a lot to clear up the current political confusion.
This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance, October 18 2008.
Click here to sign up to receive the Politicsweb headlines in your inbox every morning