By Nicholas Woode-Smith
Political parties in South Africa have a bad habit of drifting between soulless pragmatism and petty, pointless squabbling.
While there is a place for pragmatism, and there is even a case for a more productive form of bickering – we often see our opposition parties rather opting to pay lip service to pragmatism while they fight over petty differences with other parties that would serve better as natural allies.
The problem is that many parties in SA don’t fundamentally understand the role of a political party in our electoral system. They see politics as a means to gain total power or to seize isolated positions of power. Or, simply, as a tribalistic game of territory where spiting other parties is all that matters. Not prosperity for fellow South Africans, not freedom and reason, but just winning so that their opponents don’t.
But this is not how our political system is meant to work. And this is not how we achieve a better country for all South Africans.
The fundamental problem with SA party politics is that every party wants to be the top dog, with no other party having a say. Even if opposition parties work in coalitions, they do so out of necessity and not out of a sincere belief in co-operation.
In order to achieve this status as top dog, these parties sacrifice policy, principle and even their own constituencies to gain broad appeal. They become mass parties, with simple and often empty promises that they believe will appeal to everyone. The problem is that when you try to appeal to everyone, you often will lose the support of everyone. What may seem like a pragmatic position not only hurts the party, but the entirety of SA politics.
Political parties, like businesses, have a target market. A constituency. And this is the first essential component of a political party. It’s core voter base. The people whom the party represents and appeals to.
This could be a local community which has specific needs that they need to raise to government. Or an industry that needs regulatory or legislative help. Or, more often, a multitude of voters who believe in certain principles and want those principles represented in government.
Parties need to focus on the needs and desires of their individual constituencies. Because South Africa as a whole is too broad and diverse a country to be a single constituency.
Any party that tries to appeal to all of it will just alienate their core voters and start losing support. This can be seen in how the DA has been haemorrhaging support in recent elections. In an effort to compete with the ANC and become more broadly appealing, it alienated its core liberal constituents.
Principles, ideology and policies are the second core components of a political party. Ones often ignored in favour of broad marketing and meaningless slogans. Ideology results from the desires of the constituencies of the party, but ideology can also come first – informing the sort of constituency that the party may appeal to. Regardless of the order, they both work in tandem.
The role of a political party is to represent its ideology and its constituency within government. To drive forward a position, promote it, lobby for it, and ensure that the country moves within a direction that reflects more and more of their values.
In SA, political parties take a falsely pragmatic approach, and rather embrace policies that they think will get them votes. This has resulted in many similar parties that are just more of the same. This alienates voters, stagnates politics, and just continues a cycle of mediocrity.
Rather, political parties should adamantly and confidently promote their individual policies, be honest and open about their convictions, and unashamedly ideological when canvassing for support.
The reality of SA politics shows that ideological politics wins votes.
ActionSA is unashamedly ideological with its core issue of immigration, and it has taken a hefty chunk of support away from the ANC and DA. The EFF is openly ideological and is the third-largest party as a result.
Voters don’t want pretence. They want to vote for a party that reflects their values.
But, just because a party should be ideological doesn’t mean they should abandon all pragmatism and refuse to co-operate with anyone who disagrees with them.
Politics is about compromise. We live among people of differing views and will have to make calculated sacrifices in order to attain bigger victories.
Parties need to be firm about their beliefs but intelligent with which policies they focus on when it comes to passing legislation and forming coalitions. There are plenty of mutually supported values that can unite currently quarrelling parties.
The DA, ActionSA, VF+ and many others could unite behind their distaste for corruption and support for a free market. And these common values are enough to form a strong coalition that can vote together on essential policies, and debate afterwards on their differences.
What is important is that parties don’t compromise right out of the gate. They need their policies and ideology. They need to show their constituencies that they care about them. Compromise only comes later down the line when the nature of politics demands prioritising some policies over others, and calculation to achieve something rather than nothing.
The goal for all opposition parties should be to determine what they truly believe in, what parties share common overarching values and then to form proper coalitions that can be used to push for the change we need to save this country.
* Nicholas Woode-Smith is an author, economic historian and political analyst from Cape Town. His work includes fiction novels to in-depth analyses of politics, economics and the history of the country and the world.