Whatever happened to the opposition?

Lawrence Schlemmer appraises the factors that worked against opposition parties in the 14 April election.

Summary - The ANC’s massive election victory was a setback for those who judge the health of a democracy by the existence of effective checks and balances. It is nonsense to claim, as many ANC intellectuals do, that a parliamentary opposition is redundant because of South Africa’s statutory watchdog institutions such as the HRC and the Constitutional Court. These tend to be staffed by ANC appointees; moreover, they have specific mandates and cannot perform the continuous overview functions of opposition parties. Thus the election results reflect a certain pathology in our political life. What happened? Firstly, since less than 60 per cent of the eligible population voted, the ANC’s ‘crushing’ majority represents just over 40 per cent of all possible voters. We do not know exactly which people did not vote, but pre-election polls reflected a lower likelihood of voting among the kinds of voters likely to support opposition parties. Indeed, this seems to have happened: the provinces that were expected to yield the most opposition votes – the Western Cape, KZN and Gauteng – had the lowest turnouts. The opposition parties could, and should, have done more to alert their supporters that apathy would be responsible for a two-thirds ANC majority. Instead, the parties made bullish predictions about how well they would do and this seems to have lulled their voters into complacency. The DA’s election pitch, ‘South Africa deserves better’, proved ineffective against the masterly orchestration of the ANC campaign. The ruling party flooded the media with advertisements and mobilised its membership to drum up support for its ‘people’s contract’. It also dramatically improved delivery in the 18 months before the election. As a result, satisfaction with the government improved by around 50 per cent from a low point in 2002 and polls revealed a buoyant mood among black South Africans. The DA did not fail entirely. Its slogan found favour with many whites, Indians and coloureds, and it increased the size of its vote despite the increasing disenchantment with politics among minorities. The UDM and the IFP lost votes to the ANC because the ANC has a more powerful image as a party that tries to improve life for the masses. And the disastrous NNP results show that there is no space for a cooperative relationship between any opposition party and the ANC. The next test will be the municipal elections next year. Opposition parties can strengthen their position if they can turn the tide of apathy and abstention among minorities, but their real challenge is to attract more black voters. The emerging black middle class may be attracted to DA values, but the ANC’s empowerment policies hold them captive. The future challenges for opposition parties are grim indeed. Their best strategy is to try to convey the additional benefits that alternative policies could yield if an opposition party were strong enough to create pressure for their acceptance. Progress will be slow, but such an approach could contribute to a more dynamic economy as well as saving our democracy from sliding into single-party hegemony.