No place for political messiahs

Alex | Sep 30, 2009
The dangers of a one-party-dominant state mutating into a one-party state are discussed.

With its two impressive general election victories and its adroit co-option of the New National Party as a junior partner in their "co-operative governance" agreement, the African National Congress (ANC) has consolidated its position as the political colossus of South Africa. The first opening of the "window of opportunity" in the legislative package providing for floor-crossing has enabled it to seize control of the Western Cape and set the scene for a similar coup in KwaZulu-Natal. South Africa has thus become a one-party dominant state.

While that may reflect the "general will" of the people, it is not a position without danger for the survival of democracy. If the dominance of one party lasts too long - if the absence of an opposition party or coalition of parties capable of defeating a government at the polls is too prolonged - there is the risk of a one-party dominant state mutating into a one-party state. The hazard is particularly acute when the dominant party has evolved from a liberation movement, as the ruling ANC has done. There is a concomitant inclination in these circumstances for the party barons to conflate the party with the state, and, consequently, to categorise opposition as a form of treason or as a conspiracy to restore a discredited past order.

The ANC is not immune to the temptation of these messianic notions, as JL Talmon labelled them in The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. Their presence is manifest in the ANC's tendency to accuse those who oppose its aspirations to completely transform South Africa as racists or revanchists, even where its opponents explicitly state that they are not opposed to transformation per se, only to the methods deployed for its realisation. Political messianism is apparent, too, in the ANC's desire to control every aspect of South African life, from the commanding heights of the economy (through the rapidly multiplying "empowerment charters") to the racial composition of national sporting teams (through the notions of "demographic representivity" and "racial quotas").

The bullying reaction of Sports Minister Ngconde Balfour to the decision by the United Cricket Board to scrap racial quotas for national and upper echelon provincial teams illustrates the point powerfully. His use of Anglo-Saxon vulgarities to express his wrath should not be allowed to distract from the sinister underlying message. He arrogantly assumes that he alone is the guardian of the way forward and that those who disagree are in league with "hostile forces" opposed to the new South Africa and anxious to denigrate the ANC. He personifies a menacing tendency in the ANC.

To note the presence in ANC political thinking of a stream of messianism is not to assume that it is the only or even the dominant current. It is, however, apposite to warn that the current has the capacity to swell to ominously large proportions.

The ANC-led government justifies its near omnipresence in almost every sphere of South African society as necessary for completion of the vast task of radically transforming South Africa. Its rationale is that the challenge of eradicating the pernicious effects of apartheid and of constructing a non-racial democracy, cannot be accomplished in five or even ten years. The argument is compelling, but not unanswerable.

Progress has been made. Blacks, in the broad sense of the term, are in a majority in the upper management echelons of the public sector. A prosperous black middle class is growing rapidly. The new black elite is conspicuously rich. Neither category still justifies the label historically disadvantaged. They are more aptly described as a new advantaged class. The time has come for the government to set a cut-off date for affirmative action aka reverse discrimination. The ANC, however, refuses to entertain the idea.

Emeritus professor David Welsh, in a discourse in the present issue of Focus debunks the myths about and praises the merits of liberalism. He highlights the importance of circumscribing the influence of the state, and strengthening that of civil society, as an antidote to the temptations of power. It is a timely response to the ANC's apparently insatiable appetite for power. Pallo Jordan, in a separate contribution, quite correctly emphasises that the ANC has had the courage in the past to "retrace its steps when necessary". To the extent that it has veered down the path of political messianism, it should do so again.