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Growing list of new parties making democracy more complex

Build One South Africa (BOSA) i led by Mmusi Maimane, former leader of the DA. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Build One South Africa (BOSA) i led by Mmusi Maimane, former leader of the DA. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Apr 15, 2023


By Prof Sethulego Matebesi

South Africans are known for their brevity in the face of adversity. Yet, throughout our history, we have had vexing challenges that have transcended our collective imagination. One of our political challenges response - albeit primarily from public leaders – is the formation of new political parties.

While the right of South Africans to form political parties is enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution, with all the political parties formed since 1994, one wonders when the country will produce leaders capable of understanding the actual test of good governance: to deliver on the promise of civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights.

The highly competitive political systems are also prevalent in several African countries like Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Malawi, and Senegal, with over 100 political parties. South Africa had more than 600 political parties registered in 2021. Thus, in a sense, South Africa is like Nigeria, which has a reputation for having several political parties, which confuses voters during elections.

The latest entrants to the political scene are Build One South Africa (BOSA), led by Mmusi Maimane, former leader of the DA, and Xiluva, formed by former ActionSA Gauteng chairperson Bongani Baloyi. Baloyi’s political fortunes have been somewhat dramatic. In December 2021, Baloyi indicated leaving the DA after waiting 14 years for new opportunities. He joined ActionSA in early 2022, leaving the party a year later.

This raises simple but profound questions. Can the South African political landscape afford another spike in party formations before the 2024 elections? What is the impact of the mushrooming of political parties?

The notion that political parties are essential to the functioning of democracy is a recurring theme among commentators. While multiparty politics are necessary for citizens to express their preferences about who should lead them, an excessive number of parties can weaken the opposition’s influence, make voting choices unclear, and erode public confidence in parties as means of articulating interests and enforcing accountability.

An additional layer of complexity for democracy

The ever-growing list of new political parties has added another layer of complexity to democracy in South Africa. The lack of transparency and credibility in new parties’ internal structures are common reasons for the bad reputation of political parties in general. And since elections are seen as the anchor of transformative change, it is the responsibility of new political parties in the country to demonstrate that citizens are still attracted by and attached to party politics.

However, new political parties in South Africa have failed to introduce organisational and behavioural changes to convince the public that they, as agents of change, serve people’s needs.

Thus far, only the EFF, which is turning 10 this year, has presented new challenges for the ruling ANC through some radical policy positions. The EFF remains a party with notable support despite concerns about its centrifugal dynamic that centres the party around its top brass leadership and stifling criticism. There have been renewed talks about a coalition pact of opposition parties to contest the 2024 national elections.

However, new political parties add a new layer of challenges to the seemingly disconnected opposition parties in the country. These parties are often formed by leaders with an astute sense of entitlement, limiting their ability to forge tactical alliances. Such leaders who believe they are entitled to respect and admiration from others damage their relationship with party members and the public. As a result, these self-serving leaders alienate others, including the youth who has lost confidence in politics.

This explains why these newly formed parties became extinct or highly marginalised over time. For the past two decades, opposition parties have tried to challenge the ANC’s dominance. Here is a snapshot. South Africa’s democracy has entered a new chapter with coalitions at the local government level. And since greed seems to be part of the DNA of our politics, these coalitions remain unstable because of the fundamental tension between political parties. This situation has created a haven for opportunistic leaders who exploit the horse-trading for their own benefit.

The next few months will determine whether our leaders have drawn any lessons from the irresponsible horse trading in metros and redefine coalition governments for the benefit of the public. If they can rise to this challenge, our constitutional democracy will thrive.

* Sethulego Matebesi is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.