South Africa needs a strong opposition

ANC supporters, so used to being up against the apartheid state, find worrying about a counterweight to the ANC absurd.

In the run-up to the 1994 election it was easy to find ANC supporters who enthusiastically announced their hope that the ANC would win all nine provinces. Asked if they did not want a strong opposition they were often stumped for a reply. Most ANC supporters thought you could not have too much of a good thing. In a way it was forgivable: they were so used to being up against an overwhelming apartheid state that worrying about a counterweight to the ANC seemed absurd.

Things are very different now. The National Party left the government, lost de Klerk and has collapsed to 12 per cent in the polls. The next biggest party, the Inkatha Freedom Party, is in government too. As Tony Leon points out in his interview, the Democratic Party had Opposition almost all to itself at first. In the light of the ANC’s ambition of gaining a two-thirds majority, no one can now afford to fudge their answer to the question “don’t you want a strong Opposition?” For as the election nears, this will be the question that separates the sheep from the goats. The choice is whether one wants a competitive multiparty democracy or a one-party dominant political system.

South Africans have lived under a one-party dominant system for too long. And we know what it means. In the NP’s case it meant tampering with the constitution, throwing African and Coloured representation out of Parliament and ensconcing itself beyond recall. From there the NP went on to institute 90-day detention without trial; then 180 days; then indefinite detention. Attacks on the press gave way to real censorship: newspapers with blank pages, forbidden to carry reports of prison conditions, the SABC turned into a propaganda medium, television forbidden, endless banning of publications, of people, of gatherings. After that, well, why stop there? Once a state can get away with repression, nepotism and corruption, why not political judges, torture, cross-border raids, dirty tricks and genocidal biological weapons?

South Africans never want to live under such circumstances again. The condition that made them all possible was an entrenched one-party dominant system. One may argue that the ANC would never abuse its power in the same way but this is hardly reassuring. After just four years of ANC government we have a sycophantic SABC, intemperate attacks on the press, the Opposition, liberal NGOs and even on the Anglican archbishop. Coming over the horizon are the threatened politicisation of the judiciary, the loss of independence of the auditor general, the attorney general and the reserve bank governor. The point is not what one believes about ANC intentions; it is that no party should ever again be given the chance to abuse its power in the way that the NP did.

This is not exclusively a party matter. In 1994 Nelson Mandela professed himself relieved that the ANC had not won a two-thirds majority and today there are democrats within the party who are deeply anxious about what such a majority might bring. One can vote ANC, want it to win a secure majority or believe that it is the only conceivable government and still stop short of wanting to capsize the new democracy.

In Namibia’s first democratic election Swapo won 58 per cent of the vote — less than the ANC’s 62 per cent here. At the second election in 1994 Swapo had many more advantages: it could dispense patronage, control the army, police and broadcasting, it was richer than any other party and it was organising the election. Swapo’s record in government was not that wonderful but it got 73 per cent of the vote at the second election. The result? Corruption took off and Nujoma is determined to alter the constitution to extend his presidency. In 1999 the ANC will have all the same advantages that Swapo had in 1994.

The open espousal of a two-thirds majority by several leading members of Idasa is a cause for concern. One of these Richard Calland, the editor of Parliamentary Whip, was the foreign correspondent for the British communist newspaper, the Morning Star. It is understandable that a dominant or single-party system would appeal to him, but one hopes that Idasa, which has a proud history speaking out for democracy, will clarify its position and leave no doubt that it, too, can see the enormous dangers of a two-thirds majority for any party. The essence of democracy is a strong Opposition and the possibility of alternation in power. Politicians, like the rest of us, need to be kept honest by the fear of losing.