ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu File picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

South Africa is a vibrant multiparty democracy, but some things are falling apart and some forces are slouching towards Zanufication, writes Kathlena Walther.

On April 1, 2000, almost 20 years after Zimbabwe’s independence, I was attacked by a whip-wielding Zanu-PF supporter. Along with a few journalists staying at Meikles Hotel in Harare that day, I had joined a multiracial, multigenerational peace march of students, activists and families calling for the restoration of the rule of law.

“Nations are not built on hate,” was a popular placard that autumn day, not long after Zanu-PF had begun violent attacks on white-owned farms whose owners were thought to support the new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Where is South Africa’s democracy now in comparison, almost 20 years after its own political liberation?

South Africa is a multiparty democracy with 135 parties compared to the virtual one-party state of Zimbabwe in 2000 prior to the victory of the MDC in June of that year when it won 57 of 120 elected seats in parliament.

To say South Africa is a vibrant multiparty democracy is an understatement. But some things are falling apart, and some forces are slouching towards Zanufication.

The DA upped the pre-election temperature when it announced it intended to march to the ANC’s offices at Luthuli House to present a memorandum about job creation. This expression of freedom of assembly and speech has outraged ruling party members who call it “provocative”.

Fortunately, the JMPD has issued a permit to allow the march to go ahead tomorrow. Fortunate because government officials are therefore not complicit in closing the democratic space on behalf of the ruling party. However, the ANC hoopla against the freedom of assembly is a troubling signal.

For its part, the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) released a press statement on January 24 daring the DA to march and warning it not to, threatening that, if it did, the ANCYL would defend “it” at “any time of the day”.

Exactly what the league would be defending was not mentioned. Is “it” a building they seek to secure? A principle? If so, which one? Is it a dangerous arrogance of power? Is it a perceived right to silence and subdue other (non-ruling) political parties?

Are Sauer Street and other streets near Luthuli House now no-go areas for other political parties? This is a Zanu-PF’s way of doing business – cautions and threats.

In a democracy, there should only be vigorous debate and mobilisation of the masses via ideas and vision for the future, not ethnicity or fear.

Yes, it is probably intentionally provocative for the DA to gather thousands of supporters to march to Luthuli House. But so what? This is an election year. That said, what does the DA hope to achieve?

These are valid questions to ask, but to claim that the march demonstrates “disrespect of the democratic order” as party spokesman Jackson Mthembu did is Zanufication.

The ANC is also free to march to DA headquarters or to those of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the Inkatha Freedom Party or the Workers and Socialist Party. The ANCYL, too, can present memorandums.

Via the ballot box, in a multiparty democracy such as the one ushered in by the ANC in 1994, you win some and you lose some. Voters must remain free to decide; parties free to march and electioneer as long as the assembly takes place peacefully and the speech is not hate-filled or calling for violence.

Unlike Zimbabwe, South Africa has had a mostly stellar record of legitimate and credible elections, but allegations under investigation about by-elections in Tlkowe in December imply the potential Zanufication of certain electoral processes.

This year’s election must be issue-based, not filled with threats. One expects threats against other parties in a one-party state, but in South Africa?

“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” Nelson Mandela said.

More apt today in considering to what extent the ANC risks Zanufication is, perhaps: “It always seems impossible, until it’s too late.”

The American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes jr wrote that in the 1921 judicial opinion: “A page of history is worth a volume of logic.”

* Kathlena Walther is chief executive and senior research fellow of the Forum for Public Dialogue. She is writing a book on lessons learnt for South Africa from political parties in Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers

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