Chief electoral officer Mosotho Moepya and IEC chairwoman Pansy Tlakula at a media briefing on the success of the registration drive, at the IEC offices. Photo: Etienne Creux

New entrants and persistent micro-parties are good for South Africa’s multiparty democracy, writes Susan Booysen.


The intrigue of May’s elections lies in the co-existence of political volatility and budding realignment with electoral verdicts that proclaim stability in a multiparty democracy, along with strong, continuous ANC endorsement.

South Africa has a lot of “special types” and it might just be that multiparty democracy of a special type is also ours to claim.

Few of the political signals of budding change will filter through into South Africa’s fifth democratic elections. They promise little in terms of change of government, rousing challenges to the ANC, and substantial changes in how voters relate to a host of new and old also-running parties.

Yet, political parties are clamouring to enter. Nascent parties are booking places for 2019.

The elections are a case of multiparty water-treading with frustration and disappointment with 20 years of democracy rule, despite delivery and transformation.

Change is unevenly distributed and subject to corruption. Voters still hope that giving the ANC a further chance to self-correct and serve its people better will pay off.

Only modest segments of the electorate believe opposition parties can be better trusted to improve on the ANC’s act. It is just the way the ruling class likes it – the 2014 problems do not transfer into the electoral domain.

Campaign highlights to date tell a story of multipartyism and participation with minimal elation, except on the fringes, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) spotting ANC and Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) Achilles heels and Numsa imparting the promise of future action.

With foresight, the EFF could be a party with better long-term prospects of challenging the ANC than the internally combustible DA, afflicted by a racial ceiling.

More commonly, campaigns have been disgraced by the ignominy of the DA-AgangSA dalliance, the ANC getting the government to do extravagant building wraps to advertise 20 years of delivery, and lavish just-off-the-radar government parties to celebrate the 20-year landmark and bolster ANC prospects.

Voters know the ANC’s good story is but part of it. Decent progress fails in comparison with utopian 1994 ideals and leadership’s high-life examples.

Much of the ANC’s 2014 electoral success will be by default. The ANC will be rewarded for having brought political and (uneven) socio-economic liberation, and having been the good parent for much of the first 20 years. But voters’ bonds with the ANC are more instrumental than before: they argue that the ANC, better than any of the opposition parties, will be more disposed to respond to citizens’ needs.

The electorate has turned more cynical of political parties. They often assume that corrupt ways are part of the political DNA – opposition parties may be cleaner than the ANC, but that is only because they have been within reach of the state cookie jar.

In the recent Freedom House research project voters argued that should a new party come to power it would be a case of its leaders enriching themselves from scratch.

Participants reasoned that the ANC politicians were already rich and citizens were thus closer to the front of the queue should they continue to endorse the ANC.

Voters are used to the passing show of seemly and unseemly parties clambering on to election stages. In the four national elections from 1994 to 2009, totals of 19, 16, 21 and 26 parties were on the national ballot. Of these, respectively, seven, 12, 12 and 13 gained representation in Parliament. The IEC claimed nice windfalls in forfeited registration deposits.

This does not mean to say, however, that the outlandish IEC deposits for party registration to participate in May’s elections are justified.

New entrants and persistent micro-parties are good for South Africa’s multiparty democracy.

They should be helped, not obstructed.

Yet, party funding in South Africa promotes the continuation of an elitist club of insider parties. Funding goes to those who already have representation.

Small and new parties of the past have suffered the deposit scourge from election to election, until Don EFF Quixote came along with its court action.

Granted, these are deposits: refundable if the party wins a seat. But they remain a drain on the funds available to small parties, even if it is just to fund a campaign trick and match the multimillions that larger parties, and especially governing parties, collect from national and international rent-seekers.

We have heard the misplaced argument that the deposits keep out “scurrilous” parties, perhaps many of those 200-plus parties registered with the IEC.

In fact, the fees have only kept out scurrilous parties that do not have money to squander. Inane parties have often made it on to the ballot because of a wealthy patron willing to forfeit a deposit. Supporting signatures as an entrance ticket is a preferable democratic measure.

Small opposition parties contest in an important sub-league of South African elections.

They give a range of minority groups (often with a cultural, religious or racial identity) a sense of inclusion. They bring a voice to their constituencies and help identity and issue groups to buy into the multiparty system.

They extend the colour and flavour of multipartyism. They bring evidence of the pleasure of engaging electorally, without claiming that they are about to take over the government and change South Africa.

This demonstrates another reason to say that South Africa has multipartyism of a special type.

Different parties play different games and compete for a hierarchy of prizes.

The different contests within one election co-exist wondrously.

In the realm of parties with enough support to make a difference, the 2014 game for the ANC is to minimise decay and the whittling away of its support into the abstention (or worse, defection) zone.

It also does battle to keep new voters away from the EFF’s rebellious charm. Second, the DA and EFF are in the growth contest. The DA might just be beaten in the percentage-growth stakes. Its 30 percent target is a mirage.

The EFF depends on young voters, registered in modest numbers, difficult to get to the polls, and concentrated in Gauteng and Limpopo. It will be a tall order to leverage a national percentage of more than 10 percent.

But the EFF could still become the third-biggest party.

Third, the ANC breakaway club of the UDM and Cope, with the IFP, are fighting to avoid decline below the 1 to 2 percent of support.

Alliance formation is one of the lifelines in this category.

Newcomer AgangSA could add its name to this band of contestants.

Finally, there is the category of micro-parties that challenge for just an MP or two; one-quarter or half a percent of the national vote is all the Freedom Front Plus, Azapo (still without an agreement with the Socialist Party of Africa), the African People’s Convention or the Pan Africanist Congress are likely to get.

The National Freedom Party, hopeful newcomer in 2011, might be demoted into this category.

Should the Workers and Socialist Party get all of its members to vote, it will rub shoulders with a “rainbow” of party friends.

Such is the heart of multipartyism in South Africa in 2014.

The jury is out on whether it is a case of strong multipartyism, in the context of fraying one-party dominance, or whether it is a case of multipartyism under threat.


* Booysen is professor at Wits University’s Graduate School of Public and Development Management and author of The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power.

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

Sunday Independent