Alliances that could alter the political landscape

It is too soon to write off the DA or the possibility of a left-wing breakaway from the ANC tripartite alliance.

The decision of the Democratic Party and the New National Party to merge into the Democratic Alliance (DA) to fight the local government elections due later this year - and all elections beyond that - has divided political commentators. Some see it as the start of a profound reconstruction of the party political line-up, the first since the black majority was enfranchised in 1994 and the African National Congress won close to two-thirds of the vote. Others downplay the establishment of the DA as merely a minor adjustment in the ranks of white-led Opposition parties to reflect the growing strength of the Democratic Party at the expense of the once powerful National Party.

Adam Habib, of the University of Durban-Westville, subscribes to the latter view. He contends that a really significant political realignment depends on the formation of a viable working class-based political party able and willing to challenge the hegemony of the ANC in post-apartheid South Africa.

Rejecting the NNP and the DP as potential vehicles for generating meaningful opposition to the ANC, Habib writes: "The NNP and the DP, historically seen as serving the interests of Afrikaner and English whites respectively, developed electoral strategies and programmes that targeted white, coloured and Indian sections of the electorate." By doing so, he reasons, they have denied themselves the opportunity to appeal to indigenous black voters who account for more than two thirds of the voters. He contends that these white-led Opposition parties - and by implication the DA - have demonstrated their inability to "think outside of a racial prism" and thus disqualified themselves from becoming a viable parliamentary opposition force.

The ANC, predictably, concurs with Habib. It sees a reshaping of the past, not a breaking with it, in the formation of the DA. Tracing the roots of the renamed NNP to the National Party and the DP to the United Party, the ANC asserts that in their earlier forms these parties disagreed on how to control the black majority. Today, however, they "totally agree" that the "African ruling party" should be opposed at all costs. It castigates the DP national chairman, Joe Seremane, who will serve the DA in the same capacity, as an "itinerant ideologue" and token black. Having passed through the ranks of the Pan Africanist Congress and the ANC, Seremane is now "shooting through the spokes of the colonial ossewa at his democratic kith and kin", the ANC sneeringly asserts.

Habib believes that only a political party based on the "organised African working class" has the potential to become a viable opposition to the ruling ANC. That means, he argues, a political organisation led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). At present, however, Cosatu and the SACP are allied to the ANC through their joint membership of the ANC-led tripartite alliance. The emergence of a viable opposition thus presumes either that they withdraw from the alliance or that powerful figures in both institutions leave to spearhead a working class-based force opposed to the ANC.

Though he notes increasing tensions within the tripartite alliance over the ANC's post-1994 move towards more conservative and investor-friendly economic policies, exemplified by its adoption in 1996 of Gear (the Growth, Employment and Redistribution plan), Habib shies away from predicting a breakaway by Cosatu and the SACP. In a paper delivered to a conference organised by Rhodes University on "Opposition in South Africa's New Democracy", he warns, however, of the high price to their ideological integrity of remaining within the tripartite alliance. Referring to their waning influence on the ANC, he foresees that continued participation will lead to ideological self-castration, to "a hostage scenario where Cosatu and the SACP ultimately have to abandon their commitment to a social democratic political economy".

In another thoughtful paper presented at the same conference Paul Maylam, of Rhodes University, reflects on the post-apartheid reorientation of economic policy by the ANC. The revised policy, he notes, has simultaneously moved the ANC away from Cosatu and the SACP and brought it closer to the DP, the NNP and the Inkatha Freedom Party. "An issue-based politics - and a politics in which there is a greater correspondence between parties and class interests - would require a drastic political realignment," Maylam observes. He cites as an example a realignment that pits a centrist ANC, DP and NNP axis against a leftist Cosatu, SACP and PAC bloc. He adds however: "One does not have to be a soothsayer to say that it is not going to happen." A central theme of Maylam's paper is the ANC's success, throughout its history, in holding together its disparate components. He points to its mastery of "the politics of adaptation, equivocation and compromise" and its ability to emphasise race or class, nationalism or socialism, as the occasion demands.

Eddie Webster, professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, agrees that Cosatu is unlikely to withraw from the ANC-led alliance. He emphasises the deep ties between the ANC and Cosatu - a manifestation in slightly altered form of the earlier alliance between the ANC and the South African Congress of Trade Unions - and predicts that Cosatu will remain for the foreseeable future as a partially independent balance to the ANC's more conservative economic policies.

If the formation of the DA is not the harbinger of fundamental change and if a major split in the tripartite alliance leading to a black working class-based opposition movement is unlikely, then the result must be political stasis. To put it another way, it is too soon after liberation for fundamental change. Taking the Zimbabwe situation as a model, it is 15 years too soon for a development comparable to the rise of the Movement for the Democratic Change and the decline of the ruling Zanu-PF party.

But, even allowing for the cogency of the arguments supporting the stasis hypothesis, it is far too early to make categorical statements about the future of the DA and even risky to be too confident about predicting the future of the tripartite alliance. The speed of contemporary political developments - from the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself in the late 1980s and early 1990s to the end of white hegemony and the triumph of the ANC in South Africa - serves as a counsel of caution to political prognosticators. It is certainly worth examining the prospects of political growth for the DA and the discord in the tripartite alliance.

On the DA front, one point can be made without hesitation. To the extent that the DP and the NNP are now able to concentrate their energies and resources on winning votes from their adversaries, primarily the ANC, instead of expending it sniping at one another, they are better positioned to fight future elections. In addition they now have a bigger parliamentary base - 68 seats, including two from the Federal Alliance, another signatory to the DA - from which to raise their profile in the minds of voters and make their presence felt on the political stage.

A third point should be added to any objective assessment of the DA: to categorise it as a party unable of thinking outside a white racial paradigm ignores its current appeal to people who are not white - coloureds now outnumber whites in NNP ranks. It also ignores its declared commitment to non-racism - the DP, the stronger of the allies, traces its origins to the Progressive Party which campaigned for the extension of the vote beyond the white community as far back as 1959. Finally it ignores its quest for black voters: in 1994 and again in 1999 the DP won more black votes in Soweto than the avowedly pro-black PAC, while the NNP won more coloured votes than the ANC in the 1994 general election.

A critical pointer to the DA's short-term future is looming: the local government elections scheduled to take place before the end of the year. The DA is buoyed and motivated, while the ANC, by its own admission, is struggling to revive the enthusiasm which it generated for the 1994 and, belatedly, the 1999 general elections.
The mid-term report of ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe, presented to the ANC's national general council in July, deplores the decline in political commitment and activism in ANC ranks and the resultant rise in "careerism, rampant self-interest and corruption". He bemoans the "extremely high" rate of non-renewal of membership and the inability of the ANC to retain newly-recruited members for more than "a brief period". While these admissions, made to the party's credit in the full glare of media scrutiny, are designed to stir the ANC into action, they do not bode well for the local government elections.

Given the ANC's political dominance, apathy within its ranks is good news for the Democratic Alliance, which is easily the major opposition force. As Tom Lodge, professor of political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, puts it: "The ANC is likely to be the major casualty of a low turn out." He reminds us of the ANC's inability to induce most of its supporters in Soweto to vote in the 1995 local government elections. And he does not exclude the possibility of the DA emerging as the majority party in Johannesburg, one the five scheduled megacities, whose executive mayor may have a power base as big, if not bigger, than that of the provincial premier.

Lodge's assessment chimes with the view of Mike Moriarty, DA leader in the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council. Moriarty notes that the ANC vote in Greater Johannesburg fell from two million in the 1994 general election to 800,000 in the1995 local government election, a decline of well over 50 per cent. If the ANC turnout falls proportionally between the 1999 general election and this year's local government elections, the DP could win the majority of votes, Moriarty says. He adds a proviso, however: a low turnout will not be enough. For the DA to win it will have to persuade 10 per cent of those who voted for the ANC in 1999 to cast their ballots in its favour. A tall but not impossible order, he believes.

A best-case scenario for the DA - one which Lodge thinks is within the bounds of possibility - is control of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, three of the five envisaged megacities. If realised that would certainly establish the DA as a force to be reckoned with, and, at the least, provide a solid foundation for further inroads into the ANC majority in the 2004 general election.

To assume that the DA cannot win black voters is to prejudge the issue. It may have to exercise patience and perseverance to breakthrough to the black community, but it is not doomed to failure. James Selfe the DP frontbencher says: "The DP's privately commissioned research shows that a full 25 per cent of township dwelling black voters in Gauteng will consider voting for an Opposition party in 2004. There is a pool of between 25 and 40 per cent of urban ANC supporters who are deeply dissatisfied with the performance of the ANC in government." If the ruling party struggles to fulfil its promise of "a better life for all" the level of dissatisfaction seems certain to rise. The replacement of dedicated cadres by self-seeking careerists in its ranks that Motlanthe referred to suggests that its delivery problems are likely to worsen in the years ahead.

After trawling through survey data on voter preferences, Hennie Kotze of the University of Stellenbosch, notes that 8.8 per cent of black voters - close to the 10 per cent Moriarty calculates he needs to capture control of Johannesburg - have indicated an interest in voting for the DP (5.2 per cent) and NNP (3.6 per cent). It constitutes the immediate potential black constituency for the DA, he says. Kotze's observations should be read alongside the more general conclusion Lodge reflects in his authoritative book on the 1999 general and provincial elections, Consolidating Democracy.

Lodge contends that indigenous blacks, or "the Africans" as the ANC labels them, support the ANC because it serves their material interests or because they believe that it will do so. There is a logical corollary to Lodge's reasoning: if black faith in the ANC as the party that delivers material benefits to them fades, they may turn to rival parties, even if they are white-led. It is pertinent to note en passant that white support for Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change did not harm it: on the contrary it seemed to add impetus to its growth as black Zimbabwean disillusionment with Mugabe and Zanu-PF rose.

While the formation of the DA represents a coalescence of, and qualified morale booster for, the formerly feuding DP and NNP, the ANC-led tripartite alliance is under constant tension as the ANC and its Cosatu and SACP allies repeatedly find themselves at loggerheads. The latest conflict over pending amendments to the Labour Relations and Basic Conditions of Employment Act has witnessed labour minister Membathisi Mdladlana, a former trade union leader, in a head-to-head confrontation with his erstwhile colleagues in Cosatu. Where Mdladlana sees the proposed amendments as mere adjustments designed to attract investors and enhance job creation without sacrificing the rights of workers, Cosatu labels the amendment the "most serious attack on hard won worker's rights" since the days of P.W. Botha. Given Botha's reputation as a brutal white supremacist, Cosatu is clearly indulging in rhetorical warfare, particularly when it is coupled with a warning that there will be "blood on the streets" if the ANC government presses ahead with the amendments.

Petrus Mashishi, president of the SA Municipal Workers' Union (Samwu) did not hold back in his criticism of the ANC when addressing his union's sixth national congress last month: "We must support the ANC only if it delivers the goods. If it fails, we must do what we have done to the apartheid regime," he declared.

Cosatu has been aware of the potential dangers of its position in the alliance for some years. Its 1997 report by the September Commission into the future of trade unions depicted three possible future scenarios - one in which the ANC plays a positive role, one neutral and one, code-named Desert, which is particularly pertinent to the present theme. In the Desert scenario the ANC confronts Cosatu with an agonising choice at its 2003 congress. Having shifted to the right after adopting Gear, the ANC presides over a shrinking economy, virtually abandons the challenge of delivering on its promises to the poor and concentrates instead on reducing state expenditure and appeasing the International Monetary Fund. The upshot is a split in the SACP with half its leadership remaining in the ANC and the rest breaking away to form a popular alliance on the left that seeks to launch a party drawing its support from the workers. Cosatu has to decide whether to draw "on its militant tradition to organise the resistance of workers" against the ANC.

This exercise is partly intended to educate Cosatu members about the possible choices ahead. But it clearly has another purpose: to caution the ANC now. If it pays too much heed to the demands of international and local capital at the expense of workers, that may lead to the rise of a worker's party led by Cosatu and dissident SACP leaders.

So far, however, Thabo Mbeki, who assumed leadership of the ANC in December 1997, has shown himself to be a worthy heir to the tradition of managing the contradictions generated by the discordant elements and constituencies that Maylam refers to in his paper.

Mbeki has succeeded through a combination of stratagems. He has stared down his ideological adversaries within the tripartite alliance. In his address to Cosatu's central committee in June 1998 he challenged Cosatu to decide whether or not it belonged the "Congress movement", out of which the tripartite alliance grew. His address to the tenth congress of the SACP berated it for publicly criticising the adoption of Gear and for blaming the ANC for all South Africa's economic woes.

Mbeki has successfully co-opted his potential foes in Cosatu and the SACP. The appointment of Mbhazima Shilowa, immediate past secretary-general of Cosatu, as premier of Gauteng is a case in point. Since his appointment Shilowa, who was once outspoken in his criticism of Gear, has identified himself as Mbeki's "yes man", according to the Sowetan. At the same time SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin has been redeployed to Parliament, where he is subject to control by the ANC chief whip.

The president has also used compliant communists to promote investor-friendly macroeconomic policies. One thinks of public enterprises minister Jeff Radebe, a member of the SACP central committee, presiding over the ANC's economic restructuring programme, as it coyly labels its plans to privatise large chunks of state assets, including Eskom, Transnet, Telkom and Denel, with nary a word about its earlier commitment to nationalise the mines, banks and monopoly industry. One thinks, too, of the deployment of Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, another member of the SACP central committee as public service minister, where she has to hold the line against "excessive" wage demands by public sector unions, including the SA Democratic Teachers' Union once headed by labour minister Mdladlana.

Judging by the Oliver Tambo Lecture that Mbeki delivered on August 11, he is fully aware of the danger to black unity posed by class differentiation in the post-liberation phase. A student of Sussex University when it was a stronghold of the Marxist revisionist school which sought to reinterpret South African history in class terms, and a former member of the SACP central committee, Mbeki describes South Africa as a "capitalist society". He then warns: "In these circumstances it is inevitable that the native petite bourgeoisie must, in the pursuit of its class interests, seek an accommodation with the dominant (white) bourgeoisie". To avert that development and counter the rupturing of black unity, he is prepared to play the race card, to accuse white Opposition leaders, particularly DA leader Tony Leon, of propagating racism. He thereby hopes to unite blacks, including the "petite bourgeoisie", against white enemies of transformation.

Mbeki appears to have effectively forestalled a split in the tripartite alliance and to have prevented the emergence of a working class-based Opposition party. Nevertheless the tensions within the alliance continue, at a cost to the morale of its rank-and-file members. Thus, to cite a situation on the ground, members of Samwu find themselves subject to contradictory and confusing demands. They are exhorted by their union leaders to resist the ANC-endorsed plan to corporatise and privatise the bulk of Johannesburg's municipal assets but are simultaneously urged by local ANC leaders to vote for the ANC in the pending local government elections. Dale McKinley, who was expelled from the SACP last month for criticising the ANC, states the "base structures of all three alliance organisations" have been severely weakened by the departure of disillusioned but critical cadres and the internal retreat into silence of those who remained.

If the time for fundamental realignment has not yet arrived, the process of incremental change in post-apartheid politics has certainly begun. One sign of that is the formation of the DA, which at the very least signals that the parties concerned believe that the issues that divided them in the past are no longer relevant. Another is the ANC's inability to resolve the contradictions within the tripartite alliance. It is easy to be scornful and dismiss these developments as the inevitable but mundane minutiae of politics. But even the biggest landslide begins with a few rolling pebbles.