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.”
Mrs Suzman’s mastery of a dozen or more different portfolios was nothing short of heroic. Alone in a hostile Parliament, her rights fortunately protected by a friendly and non-partisan Speaker, she nevertheless had a party outside it behind her, with a national presence and embodying the hope that other liberals would soon join her. This did not happen until six more were elected in 1974. By then, however, she had had enough and declared that she would rather quit than face another five years by herself.
The ANC’s performance has made vast numbers of people cynical about political parties. But the decadence of that party (and others here and elsewhere) does not argue for an end to the party system.
All over the world, political parties have been established in democratic states with different constitutions and different types of relationship between the legislative and executive branches of government. Parties come into existence not by decree but because they are a logical outcome of parliamentary politics.
Political parties can destroy democracy. They have done so in various countries, and some would no doubt still like to do so. They are nevertheless essential to making democracy work. They are also more effective than independent MPs would be in calling government to account.
This last point is currently being powerfully demonstrated by the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), during the health and economic crises facing this country. DA “shadow ministers”, as well as representatives in provincial legislatures, have been vigorously challenging ministers and provincial executives every day on a range of issues that cover almost every ministerial portfolio. The Freedom Front Plus has been part of this effort, though on a smaller scale.
“Independent” MPs, however diligent, would never be able to do the job. They would not have the numbers to participate in all important debates. Nor would they have the numbers to attend the numerous portfolio and other committee meetings, where much of the work of national and provincial legislatures is done. Even if South Africa’s system of proportional representation were to be supplemented by a constituency system, and the powers of party bosses weakened, there would still be a need for political parties.
Government in the twentieth century has extended its reach to an extent that would have horrified Victorians. Calling ministers and officials to account requires round-the-clock vigilance. It also necessitates vast resources, including the communications media, business funding, non-governmental organizations in civil society, and political parties.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.