A Popular Front against the ANC/EFF

RW Johnson writes on what the opposition needs to do to challenge the liberation movement parties

The article I wrote advocating an Opposition popular front has elicited comment and questions from a number of people, so I will respond to that by explaining more of what I meant.

First, a few political science points.

The advantages of PR

It is important to realise that electoral systems based on proportional representation have the effect, so to speak, of spread-eagling the field. That is, every section of the whole panoply of public opinion has some hope of representation so each party can emphasise its distinctiveness in order to attract its particular clientele.

Thus, for example, the EFF can behave in all sorts of provocative and deliberately ill-behaved ways so as to attract an audience of young tearaways. It carries this further by dressing up in distinctive scarlet uniforms, adopting a military command structure and giving unlimited license to its leader to play an unpredictable naughty boy role where he might do or say almost anything. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the French National Front leader, was much the same and the result was that onlookers crowded round the TV to watch his every speech, for an enfant terrible makes for extremely good theatre.

If the EFF found itself in a first-past-the-post majoritarian system like Britain’s it would have no option but to discard all that and cling to the skirts of the ANC, for in that system an 11% party has no hope of representation.

Thus a PR’s system to claim to democracy, for it makes possible the representation of all shades of opinion – but it also atomises them and helps break down the electorate into smaller parts so that there is no natural majority. This bias of the system has been disguised in South Africa by the ANC’s huge initial dominance but as the system normalises so South Africa, like all other PR systems, will become a country with no natural majority.

The disadvantages of PR

The great disadvantage of that can be seen in most European countries which employ PR systems, for there an election merely opens a lengthy period of bargaining – in Germany it often takes months – during which the various parties put together a coalition government. And the problem about that is that voters have no say in the matter: the complexion of the coalition is decided entirely by the party elites.

We have already seen this at municipal level. A DA voter happily votes for his/her distinctively liberal party, but then the party elites get busy and possibly to the voter’s dismay, he or she finds then finds that his or her city is to be ruled by a coalition of the DA, the FF+, the Patriotic Front and a Muslim party, all supported by the EFF – a most illiberal collection.

Another point about PR systems is that not only is the electorate fragmented into a divided mosaic but the rivalry between the various fragments is exacerbated because they are often quarrelling over exactly the same segment of the electorate and because potentially every vote counts. Thus, for example, the exaggerated rivalry between the DA and ActionSA.

The French example

Similarly, in the French Third Republic, where the Communist and Socialist parties were competing for exactly the same working class votes, although the parties were quite close ideologically, their rivalry was especially bitter. Hence they were known as les freres-enemis: the brother enemies. This was a source of frustration for many of their voters who longed for left-wing unity, but the party leaders on both sides bitterly resisted any move towards unity.

This persisted until after Hitler had come to power in Germany next door, an outcome greatly assisted by the bitter conflict between the German Communist and Socialist parties. Finally Stalin gave the go ahead and the French Communist Party launched an appeal for a united popular front to prevent fascism coming to power in France. This was an objective almost everyone could agree on. Gradually the Socialists and the left Radicals joined up and the Front was swept to power on a great wave of momentum and enthusiasm in 1936.

It was agreed in advance that the parties of the popular front would share out ministerial posts based on their share of the popular vote and that the premiership would go to the largest party. The resulting government was led by the Socialist, Leon Blum, the first Jewish prime minister of France - a fact which enraged French antisemites whose slogan was “Better Hitler than Blum”. In fact Blum was to spend the war in Buchenwald and Dachau before re-emerging to become prime minister again.



A popular front in South Africa

My suggestion was that South Africa needs an Opposition popular front against an ANC-EFF government or, indeed, merely another ANC government since it is fairly clear that the country cannot easily survive another five years of ANC rule, with or without the EFF. That is, here too we have a great unifying danger which should galvanise all Opposition parties and voters.

In order to come together the parties would have to agree on a common programme. The situation is so dire that this should not be difficult. Surely everyone could agree on a firm stance for law and order, cracking down on corruption and the various criminal gangs terrorising the transport, mining and construction industries. Equally, we need a firm, clear and enforced policy on immigration.

We also need to liberalise the labour laws, to end cadre deployment and sharply improve education. We should insist on the right person for every job and value for money in state contracts, with no racial favouritism of any kind. And we should go all out for economic growth, which means removing all barriers to alternative energy producers and opening many more mines.

That is probably quite enough for a five year government. It would be essential to maintain all social grants just as they are, showing up the lie that those grants are only safe under an ANC government. A government determined on these objectives would quickly engender greatly increased business confidence and investment.

Match the ANC bid. No more politics of protest

The great advantage of such an arrangement would be that in 2024 the united Opposition could offer the country an alternative government and an alternative programme. At the moment this is sadly lacking. The DA leader, addressing the RMB conference, proudly boasted of an opinion poll showing the DA at 25%.

But that is rather pointless: that just means a few more DA MPs and nothing else. A few more MPs to complain about what the ANC does. The ANC is able to promise both a government and a programme that it intends to enact. It is essential that the Opposition must be able to match that bid. Complaining and protesting is not enough. The Opposition needs to govern.

The other great advantage of such a strategy is that by hammering out a common programme in advance with the various partner parties the Opposition would avoid doing what it does at municipal level, where the nature of the coalition and its programme is known only after the election, with no input from voters.

Instead both the coalition partners and their common programme would be fully known before the election, so voters would know exactly what they were voting for.

This would also make it far harder for any party in the coalition to defect or change its mind after the election: there would be a solemn contract with the electorate. This would be essential since if the ANC lost power it would be desperate to overthrow the popular front government and would certainly use bribery or any other means to hand to achieve that.

Not an easy road

There is no doubt that putting together such a popular front and hammering out a common programme would be hard, difficult work. It was in France, too. But the idea of such a front quickly excited the electorate and every stage of the negotiations was followed with keen attention and no one could mistake the fact that the electorate was extremely keen to see such unity achieved.

This following wind of enthusiasm drove the politicians on, helping them overcome all difficulties. The large majority was horrified at the thought of fascism taking over France and if a popular front could stop that, no other argument was necessary.

When the negotiations reached their conclusion the popular front campaign was launched amidst tremendous, indeed euphoric popular enthusiasm. This momentum carried right through to the front’s electoral triumph in 1936.

Save South Africa

It is quite likely that the same would hold true in South Africa. The popular front would campaign to Save South Africa. Its posters would merely have to advertise the facts of national decline under the ANC and warn that another five years of that would collapse the state and the country. Vote to Save South Africa or vote for corruption and collapse: the choice is yours.

Note that another advantage of such a strategy is that the DA would be allied, in all probability, with the IFP, UDM, Cope and ActionSA among others. This would in large measure overcome the racial issue. Africans who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the “white” DA could instead choose one of the mainly black parties in the front.

What I have sketched above is merely an outline, the bare bones of the strategy. Naturally, if the Opposition were to launch such an initiative there would be many other strategic and tactical points to be made. But let this suffice for now.

Perhaps above all such a strategy would mean that the Opposition gave up merely being a voice crying in the wilderness. Instead of being content with 20% or 25%, this way the Opposition would set out to win. In effect it would say to the country:

“Things have got so bad, have become so serious that we have reached a point of no return. The question now is whether to Save South Africa or not. Because of that we are willing to put aside all the differences which have hitherto divided us. So we have created a popular front with the intention to offer you a completely alternative government with an alternative programme of action.

“We don’t ask you to vote just for abstract principles or to protest against what the ANC does. We want to govern and we want to win. We have to turn out the corrupt and incompetent who have brought South Africa to this point. Instead we offer you a government of all the races and all the talents, a government which will offer you law and order, economic growth, more jobs and real hope for the future.”