South Africa’s opposition parties in chaos as 2014 election looms

Is Mamphela Ramphele the next president of South Africa? No. Chatham House

Over the past year, South Africa’s media have relished the excitement and hype around the emergence of two new political parties. Julius Malema, the expelled former leader of the ANC Youth League notorious for his alleged corruption and kick-back scandals in Limpopo, South Africa’s most poverty-riddled province, has launched his populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Meanwhile, Mamphela Ramphele, formerly a black consciousness activist, World Bank manager, and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, launched her party Agang, meaning “to build” in Northern Sesotho, one of the eleven official languages of polyglot South Africa.

But even before selecting its first list of candidates, Agang has apparently all but imploded in a spectacular week of partisan farce. Last week, Ramphele – without consulting her own party’s leadership – announced she would run in first place on the election list of candidates for the established Democratic Alliance (DA) party, the official opposition who hold 16% of seats in parliament and control the Western Cape province.

The resulting confusion has now engulfed both parties, first with contradictory statements indicating confusion over whether Ramphele would accept DA membership or remain leader of Agang – and then with last night’s announcement that Ramphele had “reneged” on the agreement altogether.

But even if the two parties’ “merger” is apparently now off the cards, the episode may have done lasting damage to them both.

Internal strife

That the DA announced Ramphele as their “presidential candidate” was a brazen act of electioneering hype, even before the announcement fell apart. In truth, South Africa has a Westminster-derived parliamentary structure; the newly elected parliament will vote for a president on its first day, who will naturally be the leader of the party with the most seats. That party will undoubtedly be the currently ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Nonetheless, under South Africa’s electoral system of proportional representation, having one’s name placed first on a party’s candidate list confers the standing and prestige of party leader. The DA’s co-option of Ramphele for their top candidate therefore implied a demotion, real or potential, for Lindiwe Mazibuko, the DA’s current parliamentary leader. Both Mazibuko and (fleetingly) Ramphele were parachuted into the party’s top spot by forceful pressure from Helen Zille, the DA national leader and provincial premier of the Western Cape. This hurt long-serving party loyalists of all colours who had been passed over, and seems to indicate a trampling of the DA’s internal democracy.

One of Zille’s main priorities has been to get the DA to shake off its stereotype as the party of South Africa’s ethnic minorities (principally white, Indian, and “coloured” or mixed race) by recruiting black leaders such as Mazibuko and Ramphele. These candidates do not have large constituencies in the black townships; they are the kind of black leaders that most white voters feel comfortable with, their social class evident in Oxbridge-accented English and millionaire shareholdings respectively.

It is important to note that while the DA is mostly led by “Old Progs” (veterans of the Progressive Party of Helen Suzman) most of its white voters will be ex-Afrikaner nationalists who used to vote for the old National Party under Apartheid. The DA’s major social role, hitherto played by Zille and Mazibuko, is to socialise these voters into 21st century non-racialism.

Splitting the vote

Since the advent of full South African democracy in 1994, the ANC has consistently captured between 60% and 70% of the national vote. The DA, meanwhile, has steadily increased its vote share from under 2% to 16%, and in the most recent municipal election won nearly 24% of the vote. The Independent Democrats (ID), a small party, will formally merge with the DA as soon as this year’s election is officially announced. We can guess that almost all its voters will follow it to the DA; only a few will float over to the ANC. All other parties have invariably shrunk dramatically with each successive election.

DA sympathisers in the media predict the ANC dropping below a 60% majority. The DA’s aims are not far off this: they have declared the goals of capturing the Gauteng and Northern Cape Provinces, and 30% of the national vote. They emphasise how the largest trade union will withdraw the support it gave the ANC during the previous election, and that the ANC’s Youth League is now dysfunctional.

But more realistically, any decline in the ANC’s majority will depend on whether voters previously allied to COPE (Congress of the People, a party that broke away from the ANC in and which subsequently descended into infighting) return to the ANC or instead abstain.

So what are the opposition’s chances in 2014? The DA seems sure to increase its parlimentary presence from 16%, by at least the number of ID voters it will merge with; realistically, perhaps it will rise to near 20%. Its focus is on the Gauteng and Northern Cape Provinces, so watch how much (if anything) changes there. Julius Malema’s EFF might elect four MPs, but is bound to decline in subsequent elections like other populist parties before it. And ultimately, this episode has shown up Ramphele as autocratic and erratic, and has left her party angry and confused.

All in all, not a great start to the 2014 campaign for South Africa’s still frustrated opposition.

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