Last August, I wrote in this column about the need for a more pro-active opposition, and how it is not enough for the non-governing parties just to sit back and wait for the ANC to weaken, or perhaps split decisively. Instead, the various opposition parties should try to find enough common ground to enable them to work together at election time, and thus present a viable alternative to the ANC. I suggested this not because I am anti-ANC, and certainly not because the Bishops’ Conference, for which I work, takes an ‘anti-this party’ or ‘pro-that party’ approach. No, it is simply that history shows us that, in democracies all over the world, if one party stays in power for too long, and doesn’t face the threat of losing that power, all sorts of abuses and improprieties creep in. And it makes very little difference whether that party is left-wing or right-wing or anything in between. Real competition among political parties is a driver of service delivery, of good governance, and of sound policy. So, it is with very mixed feelings that one takes note of Dr Mamphela Ramphele’s launching of a new ‘party political platform’; and let us assume that this ‘platform’ will become a fullyfledged party before next year’s election. Firstly, does Parliament have room for another party? There are already 12 opposition parties, some of which have only a single MP, and many of which do nothing except take up space. Exactly what Dr Ramphele’s party would add to this mix is unclear. Secondly, there is very little to distinguish the various opposition parties at an ideological level. Almost all of them are broadly social democratic (as is the ANC) and, with one or two exceptions on questions such as land rights, all of them profess adherence to the Constitution and its core values. There is little indication that Dr Ramphele’s envisaged party will be any different. On the other hand, she does stand out as a leader of
singular talent, experience and originality. It is hard to think of anyone else in South Africa who has quite the same mix of careers and background—political activist, medical doctor, university head, World Bank vice-president, and successful businesswoman. She certainly does not lack credibility. But where will her support come from? Some analysts believe that there is a growing, mostly younger, section of the ANC’s traditional support base that is frustrated with the governing party and ready to transfer allegiance if they can find another acceptable political home. The fact that COPE attracted 7% of the vote in the last general election suggests that there is indeed a willingness among voters to try out something new; however, we don’t yet know if Dr Ramphele is sufficiently well known to the electorate in general. There is also a chance that she will end up taking more votes from existing opposition parties than from the ANC. Certainly, the uninspiring performance of COPE since 2009 could cost it a lot of support in 2014, and one can see Dr Ramphele’s party benefiting from that. But it is also quite possible that some DA supporters could line up behind her, especially those who are still uncomfortable with what they perceive as the ‘too white’ nature of the party. Another possibility is that, with a well-organised campaign of listening to what people want—which she has promised to do—her new party could re-ignite interest in electoral politics. In the 2009 elections, a quarter of registered voters did not vote; and many more who would have qualified to vote did not register in the first place. This translates into a good few million potential voters, some of whom may well be looking for a candidate like Dr Ramphele. Whatever happens, the emergence of this new political voice is a healthy sign. In the short term, it may help or harm either the governing party or the opposition, but it shows that our democratic space is open, and that anyone who has something to offer can enter that space.