Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille has again challenged President Jacob Zuma to a public debate. File picture: Armand Hough

Our political landscape would be so bleak if the DA and the ANC were the only options, says Mike Atkins.

It is not unpatriotic to vote for a party other than the ruling party. This may be stating the obvious, but it provides an important backdrop for discussion around what “opposition” politics can and should be. The discomfort surrounding the failed experiment of bringing together the DA and Agang SA also serves as a spur for thinking and debate.

In any context, the existence of a healthy opposition is an important part of maintaining a healthy government and a healthy country.

A ruling party that has no fear of being replaced has no incentive to place the needs of the electorate above its own. Again, this is obvious. It should also be plainly understood that desiring a “strong” opposition does not necessarily imply hatred for either the ANC, or for black people.

But, in a country such as South Africa, what does a healthy opposition look like? What should we be aiming for?

There is a view held by many that it is necessary for a single party to grow strong enough to challenge the ANC electorally, and that we need to create a competitive two-horse race.

If one looks at countries such as the UK or the US, it might be easy to gain this impression.

But while we can rightly dismiss the notion of one-party states bringing about good governance, could we perhaps look beyond the two-party approach for South Africa?

The first observation to make is that any vote for a party other than the ANC is just as effective as any other, providing that the party has some prospect of attaining seats in Parliament (or provincial legislatures). If the aim is to dilute the ANC share of the vote, then any of the smaller parties will do. There is no such effect as “splitting the vote” as there is in a constituency system.

South Africa is a diverse country in many ways other than race. Economic and employment status is one clear area of differentiation, with different interests to take into account.

The urban/rural divide is something that many of us city-dwellers simply do not comprehend (here in KZN, about 50 percent of our population is rural).

Education, language, access to housing and health care are all significant points of difference.

It is not difficult to argue that two main parties simply cannot represent the full range of people’s needs and interests in the context of this diversity.

Conversely, it is easy to set out the view that there is space for diversity within the parties represented in Parliament. If we have a multiplicity of thriving political parties, then voters would have true choices open to them.

In our situation, the duality of a two-party system could well serve to entrench the politics of bitterness and division, almost permanently trapping us in an inadvertent legacy of apartheid. On the other hand, if a range of smaller parties was to flourish, then the changed shape and dynamics of our politics could well bring about something new.

In a proportional representation system, it is normal for a number of parties to co-exist, with major groupings representing key interests or viewpoints, and with smaller parties securing sometimes significant concessions for those whom they represent. This type of politics is not easy, but the key attributes of such a system are negotiation, co-operation and accommodation. And perhaps a dash of humility would not go amiss.

Without intending any disrespect for our two main parties, it can be pointed out that they are surprisingly alike in several regards, and that substantial numbers of our population are effectively unrepresented in any meaningful way.

The ANC and the DA can be characterised as being highly amenable to big business (or potentially to vested business interests), and as carrying out a strongly liberal social agenda.

Many would see these attributes in a positive light, but equally, there are many people in South Africa who see society through more conservative lenses.

Logically, one cannot write off a world view on the basis that it is less “modern” than another – different positions should be tested on their merits, and the whole point of a constitutional democracy is that different philosophies can find expression in public life.

The question is not who is right and who is wrong – the question is whether all viewpoints are sufficiently represented within our political system.

To the critics who argue that we have had the smaller parties, and that they have not done well, there is a simple answer – if something is worthwhile, but struggling, do you pull the plug and give up, or do you persevere and build capacity?

Certainly, there is a need for some consolidation, and some will fall by the wayside, but how bleak would our political landscape be if the DA and the ANC were the only options?

So where does this leave the voter? We should each feel free to vote for parties that best represent our own world view, without being bullied into feeling that we have an obligation to vote for one of the “big two”. It is not necessary to vote ANC to “keep the DA out”, or to vote DA to “stop the ANC”.

And who knows – if enough people exercise their preferences for smaller parties, we may well see something of a realignment in South African politics, perhaps starting in the provinces.

* Mike Atkins is a Durban-based IT consultant with a long-standing interest in electoral processes and the validation of election results.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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