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Emergence of new parties in South Africa: Quest for Power over real change

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Emergence of new parties in South Africa: Quest for Power over real change

With the 2024 national and provincial elections now a few weeks away, theoretically, voters will be spoilt for choice when it comes to political parties to vote for.

According to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of South Africa, there are 369 registered political parties at national level. Most parties are gearing up for the final push to convince voters to make a cross next to their names on May 29.

However, the reality is that only a few will make it to national parliament and provincial legislatures. There are currently 14 political parties represented in parliament and this number is not expected to differ significantly after the 2024 elections, as voters ultimately sift the real players from the pretenders.

The huge number of parties contesting elections in South Africa in particular, has often been hailed as the beauty of multi-party democracy. Professor Kwesi Prah, in a 1994 paper titled “Multi-Party Democracy and It’s Relevance in Africa,” hailed multi-party political systems as the most reliable systems for the cultivation, development and institutionalization of democracy as “It allows a hundred flowers to bloom and a hundred schools of thought to contend”.

However, it can be argued that the increasing number of political parties emerging in South Africa is not doing much in contributing to the diversity of views and schools of thought, as stated by Prah. For one, many of the emerging parties in South Africa are iterations of existing parties and, in some instances, share ideological orientations.

A look at the manifestos of most parties contesting the 29 May elections, show that most pose similar solutions to the country’s challenges. The question that some may ask is, if most parties share similar ideologies and solutions, why don’t we have fewer parties? Perhaps the answer lies in politicians’ quest for power and control.

Most parties that exist today are splinters or breakaways from other parties. To name a few, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK Party) are from the African National Congress (ANC); and ActionSA and Build One South Africa (BOSA) are from the Democratic Alliance (DA).

It can be said that leaders that go on to form their own parties are driven by disagreements or egos. As a result, they do not present viable alternatives in terms of policies. They exist to hurt the parties they left by way of a reduction in votes or securing their relevance, as they have no other prospects outside of politics.

There is also the element of the ‘no one else but me’ complex that exists in South African politics and which has seen leaders opting to form their own parties instead of joining other formations that share their values and political outlook. For most, the prospect of serving under another leader is seemingly too much to comprehend.

Breakaways from the ANC

Since 1994, some of the parties that broke away from the ANC include the United Democratic Movement (UDM), Congress of the People (COPE), the EFF, the African Congress for Transformation (ACT) and most recently, the MK Party. Though, the ANC has managed to thwart the threats posed by some of these parties in each election, they have managed to eat away at its voter base and may see the ruling party obtain less than 50% in the national elections for the first time since 1994.

The policies of the breakaway parties are essentially those of the ANC, and they have not been that convincing in how they will implement those policies better than the ANC. This may explain why those parties have not managed to lure voters en masse away from the ANC. And since they are mostly centred on the popularity of their leaders, the parties, to some exception the EFF, have also not managed to amass new voters.

Voters are alive to the circumstances surrounding the formation of the new parties, which has led to them mistrusting their stated intentions and not giving them their votes. The majority of the leaders that went on to form breakaway parties did not leave voluntarily over policy disagreements, but due to internal party power plays which left them out in the cold.

Breakaways from the DA

Up until the 2019 elections, the DA was growing and posing a somewhat serious threat to the ANC. However, the wheels started to fall off with the dismissal of Mmusi Maimane as leader in 2020. Maimane’s departure from the DA was followed by a series of resignations of mainly black leaders from the party, who went on to join or form their own formations. Herman Mashaba formed ActionSA, Maimane formed BOSA and Makashule Gana co-founded Rise Mzansi.

For its part, the DA seems to not be taking the emergence of parties with which it shares common liberal orientations very well. Similar to the ANC, the breakaways and the Freedom Front Plus are eating away at the DA’s voter base and may trigger its eventual decline from being a major player in national politics.

The DA, in turn, does not seem to have an answer to its splinter parties and has resorted to direct attacks which do not seem to be doing it any favours. A dismal performance in the upcoming May 29 elections may see another leadership change and a reconsideration of policy positions for the main opposition.

Coalition politics: Power Plays to dominate

The DA, in an attempt to consolidate the opposition vote, led the creation of a ‘Multi-Party Charter’ around parties with similar values. However, it has since collapsed not only because of a lack of prospects to unseat the ANC, but also because of egos. The ANC is projected to fall below 50% if polls are to be believed and the possibility of the party entering into a coalition agreement at national level seem high. Analysts have been speculating on which parties would be ideal partners for the ANC.

Naturally, the choice should not be difficult if we are using ideological orientations as a base. However, the reality is that egos and power plays will be at the centre of post-elections negotiations. Selfish interests more than the needs of the voters will be the order of the day, even though parties will have people believe otherwise. It is not unimaginable that the way things are playing out at local government level may spill into the provincial and/or national levels.

The EFF and MKP will put difficult terms on the table to support the ANC. An ANC-DA partnership may not go down well with their voters. An ANC-IFP and smaller parties coalition may be palatable to most citizens and investors but may see the ANC compromising a lot for the sake of governing, as seen at local government.

Ultimately, politics is about the pursuit and consolidation of power. The days of contending schools of thought are long gone and have been replaced with thuggery and corruption. In the end, voters are just bargaining tools and chips in the game that politicians play with each other.

By Calvin Matlou, Public Policy and Regulatory Affairs Consultant at Frontline Africa Advisory