The independent democrats: A case study in opposition politics in post-apartheid South Africa
The study titled The Independent Democrats (ID) documents and analyses the development of a small South African opposition party in the period between the party’s inception in 2003 and the 2009 general election. Moreover, the study seeks to illustrate inhibitions for the emergence of a more competitive multiparty democracy in South Africa by discussing a number of challenges opposition parties are confronted with in the post-apartheid dispensation, and by assessing the impact these issues had on the ID. The inquiry, thus, contributes to the study of South Africa’s contemporary political history as well as the debate on one-party dominance and the consolidation of the country’s young democracy.
Michael Aeby conducted the study as his Master’s thesis in African History at the University of Basel between January and September 2009. The project was supervised by Prof. Patrick Harries from the History Department of the University of Basel and Prof. Sheila Meintjes from the Department of Political Studies of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. For the purpose of this study, Aeby spent an extensive resarch stay in Cape Town, where he made enquiries at Parliament and sojourned at the History Department of the University of Cape Town. The study was co-funded by the Swiss-South African Joint Research Programme, the Freiwillige Akademische Gesellschaft and Mathieu Foundation.
A history of the Independent Democrats
In March 2003, Patricia De Lille, a feisty parliamentarian who had acquired renown as an HIV/AIDS and anti-corruption activist, broke away from the Pan African Congress (PAC) to launch her own party, the Independent Democrats. A year later, the ID passed the litmus test in the 2004 general election and became the first party led by a woman to win representation in South African national and provincial elections. Given the party’s appeal across historical divides, political analysts welcomed the emergence of the ID as a sign of hope for a truly multiracial opposition.
The ID was able to grow its structures and make significant gains in the 2006 local government elections. These enabled the party to co-govern in a series of municipal councils in the Northern and Western Cape. However, De Lille’s party also suffered a number of heavy setbacks. Internal dissent resulted in the defection of numerous legislators and, as the thesis explains, the ID struggled to cope with an electoral environment and rules that inhibited the emergence of viable opposition parties. Following the breakaway of the Congress of the People (COPE) from the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which substantially altered the political landscape, the ID’s electoral support declined dramatically in the 2009 general elections. De Lille subsequently merged her short-lived social democratic party into the major parliamentary opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA). The merger enabled the De Lille to become Mayor of Cape Town and the DA to consolidate its hold on the Western Cape, where the two parties had been in a fierce competition over the votes of the Coloured community.
The challenges of opposition politics in South Africa
Besides documenting the historical trajectory of the ID, the study illustrates a number of challenges opposition parties are faced with in South Africa. The author argues that, by severely complicating the growth of additional sizeable opposition parties, the combined impact of these challenges inhibits the emergence of a more competitive multiparty democracy and further entrenches the dominant-party system. This proves problematic for it is widely accepted among scholars that the continued electoral dominance of a virtually unchallenged governing party is likely to have negative consequences for government accountability and the quality of democracy.
The electoral system and floor-crossing
While South Africa’s Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system used in parliamentary and provincial elections allows for the proliferation of small opposition parties, certain elements of the legal framework have clearly undermined their growth into sizeable contenders. An element of the electoral system that had a devastating impact on the ID and other fringe parties was the floor-crossing legislation, an act that allowed public representatives to defect to other parties without losing their mandate. Since floor-crossing disproportionately affected small parties due to a 10% defection clause, the legislation violated the ‘principle of a level playing field’. As the analysis of the ID’s case shows, floor-crossing did not only result in a loss of mandates but had devastating effects on the internal functioning of parties, for the defection of public representatives meant a substantial loss of funding. Moreover, the practice of wooing representatives to join a different party undermined the confidence base amongst party members. Following a public outcry over the political horse-trading among elected officials, the unpopular floor-crossing act was eventually scrapped.
Political party funding
The element of the institutional framework that most seriously compromises the ‘principle of a level playing field’ for all contenders, however, remained unaltered. As for all parties, the ID’s ability to compete for electoral support is limited by the party’s budget. Given that, according to the South African party funding regulations, the bulk of public funding is distributed on a proportional basis, and because there is a lack of barriers to spend this money for electioneering purposes, the public party funding regime clearly works in favour of the two biggest parties. This is exacerbated by the fact that major political parties enjoy more financial support from private sources. Given the absence of regulations, private party funding is left completely open to abuse and influence buying, whereby the ruling party can offer a huge amount of patronage. It is however questionable if the disclosure of private sources would not work to the disadvantage of opposition parties as donors who fear being sidelined by the government might shy away from supporting the opposition. In an interview with the author, De Lille confirmed that some donors preferred to remain anonymous due to those fears. In sum, the current political party funding regime clearly represents the most significant institutional obstacle to the development of more competitive multiparty democracy in South Africa.
Persistent patterns of voting behaviour
It is understood that, even if the institutional framework provided for perfectly fair conditions, the dominant ANC would still win any national electoral competition with a vast majority. The persistence of voting patterns in South Africa and the fortunes of opposition parties such as the ID are determined by a multitude of factors. As the discussion of voting behaviour based on the example of the ID shows, these factors may include the party’s racial image, policies, visibility and performance in government. Opinion polls prove that the ID drew support from across racial lines and that the ‘racial census thesis’ cannot adequately explain the persistence of voting patterns. The party’s ability to mobilise support from all communities stemmed from its non-racial approach to politics. The discussion also shows that the ID’s platform corresponded to the priorities of the majority of South Africans, but might not have differed sufficiently from the ANC’s to constitute a viable alternative. Significantly, the analysis also illustrates that the decline in partisanship opens opportunities for newcomers such as the ID and explains the party’s appeal amongst the youth. It is understood that the party’s low visibility that was determined by its electioneering capacity also accounted for the low levels of national support.
Strategic choices and styles of opposition
A further challenge for aspiring opposition parties discussed in the thesis relates to their political culture and ‘style of opposition’. The analysis suggests that, a commitment to being a ‘cooperative’ rather than a ‘robust’ opposition might be conducive for democratic stability. However, the electoral support the ID initially enjoyed, in particular from racial minorities, stemmed from robust attacks on the ANC. For the ID, the dilemma was that if the party adopted a robust style of opposition that might attract voters supporting the DA, they risked losing the support of moderate and black voters. The challenge was, thus, to choose a balanced style of opposition reconcilable with the requirements of South Africa’s young democracy and the preferences of the different segments of the party’s support base.
Coalitions to confront the hegemon
Finally, the study discusses the ID’s experience with coalition politics and the possibility of a broad alliance of opposition parties that, at the time of writing, was under debate. The ID entered coalition governments with both the DA and ANC in a series of municipalities. After failing to enforce a grand coalition in the city’s executive council, De Lille entered government coalitions with the DA in Cape Town and the Western Cape. At the time of writing, these appeared to be alliances of convenience. Despite a history of fierce competition between the parties, however, the DA-ID coalition government in Cape Town proved to be stable and enabled the ID to exercise considerable influence on government decisions. As the study projected, the close cooperation with the DA, however, probably blurred the junior partner’s image as a distinctive party. The executive coalition, as it turned out after the finalisation of the study, became the basis for the incorporation of the ID into the DA, which allowed De Lille to ascend to the post of Mayor in Cape Town.
At the time of writing, the ID was about to hold explorative talks with other opposition parties in order to identify potential partners for an electoral coalition to compete in the 2011 local government elections. In an interview with the author De Lille named the United Democratic Movement, COPE and the DA as the likely alliance partners. However, the widely debated electoral coalition of opposition parties failed to materialise.
While the ID ceased to exist as an independent party, most of the above mentioned challenges facing opposition parties and South Africa’s burgeoning young democracy persist. As concerns about a decline in popular accountability by a ruling party that does not fear any risk of being removed from power grow, the lack of genuine multiparty competition and the causes thereof become ever more problematic. While the DA has made considerable gains in the past elections and aspires to become a genuine challenge to the ANC, it remains unclear whether the party that is widely perceived as representing the racial minorities is able to break the racial ceiling in a significant way. More importantly, it is questionable whether a virtual two-party system suits South Africa’s historically divided society.