Mmusi Maimane, former leader of the official opposition, is enthusiastic about the recent ruling by the Constitutional Court that it is unconstitutional to stipulate that citizens may be elected to Parliament and provincial legislatures “only through their membership of political parties”. Various political commentators are also excited that Parliament has been ordered by the court to amend the Electoral Act of 1998 to enable candidates to run independent of political parties. The court said that the right of freedom of association included the right not to associate.
“With a new electoral system,” says Mr Maimane, “accountability will lie not with parties but with the people.” Others argue that political governance is about to be “transformed” and that the “iron grip” of the African National Congress (ANC) is about to be relaxed. Unfortunately, as a former opposition chief whip, Douglas Gibson, pointed out on Politicsweb, this is all largely “nonsense”.
That a single member of Parliament (MP) can be spectacularly successful is exemplified by Helen Suzman’s thirteen years alone in Parliament between 1961 and 1974. But her career actually proves the vital importance of political parties to parliamentary politics.
She crossed the floor in 1959 not on her own, but with eleven other United Party MPs. Had they not formed the new Progressive Party (Progs), they are unlikely to have attracted the financial backing of Harry Oppenheimer. Had Mrs Suzman run on her own as a single independent in the 1961 general election rather than as one of 26 Prog candidates across the country, she would almost certainly have lost her Houghton seat instead of scraping home by 564 votes. That would probably have been the end of her political career.
Alone in Parliament when all the other Progs were defeated in that election, she quickly discovered just how lonely it could be. An unofficial weekly caucus she held with some of her defeated colleagues did not last as they had to find other jobs. She could not leave the chamber during important debates because there was nobody to take her place. There was no cross-party fraternisation so she dined or lunched alone whenever she did not have outside guests.
And, as she wrote in her memoirs, “I especially missed the camaraderie of drinking with my chums in the members’ pub after the House adjourned, and all those lively post-mortems on the day’s events.”