Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Online Letter
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
I have lived long enough to observe that South African history is essentially cyclical. One-party hegemony is no novel phenomenon and neither is the wholesale denial thereof. As elites change, new historical perspectives emerge. The South African elites I have witnessed first-hand – and please note that I was born in 1928 – have all exuded a strong sense of purpose and a positive belief in their own longevity and self-importance. They have also behaved accordingly.
American President Lyndon Johnson once said of his fellow-Texan, Governor John Connally: "That sonofabitch has forgotten he was ever poor". Mr President could have been paying tribute to members of South Africa’s various political elites – and their spin doctors.
Yet, in retrospect, my assessment of South Africa’s decade and a half of democracy is one of cautious celebration. Under Mr Mandela and Mr Mbeki, and now Mr Zuma, our post-apartheid governments have made giant strides in the delivery of much-needed public goods, values and services to their hitherto marginalised constituents. By so doing, the post-apartheid state has largely legitimised itself in the eyes of the people. In a fundamental sense, the South African state has progressively sought to become constitutional and anchored on the rule of law. And our civil society organisations and the political opposition have, much to the annoyance of those in power, been trying hard to put this state on the road to becoming a genuine civic society where the rights and freedom of individuals reign supreme.
It is with this insight in mind that the IFP and I, whilst not directly involved in the latest bout of opposition ‘toenadering’, have watched the process unfold with great interest because we believe a truly unified opposition would make for a strong SA. Multipartyism is the best – the only – guarantor of democracy. And as I said two weeks ago, we wish the key actors well and good fortune. But I would like to clarify what I believe are the defining characteristics of a unified opposition.
First, I largely subscribe to the dictum that opposition parties don’t win elections, governments lose them. The reason is self-evident.
Governments get to set the agenda; announce targets; unveil programmes and are largely free to manage the news coverage of government business. Being in opposition, by contrast, usually means been forced onto the back foot; to respond to events rather than being weather makers.
The word ‘opposition’ itself is infused with gladiatorial connotations. Confrontation is inferred. This means, unfortunately, that the role of the opposition has too often been stigmatised in Africa’s democratic discourse characterised as it is by consensus and a respect for (state) authority. Although, in some post-independent states like, for example, Tanzania, the opposition opted to play a ‘constructive role’ and worked with government to bolster development.
On the whole, In common with other African democracies, SA lacks a tradition of developing issue-based campaigns that define many Western democracies and bring a new life into their stale political environments.
It is therefore no good for the opposition here to feebly lay all the blame on a dominant ruling party for preventing the emergence of a responsive opposition.
This leads me directly to my biggest concern pertaining to the deliberations about unifying the opposition. We have largely focused on getting the ANC’s share of the vote down below 50 percent (which would be good), but precious little on how we do things differently from government – if at all.
To say we would be more transparent and accountable, whilst virtuous, is in fact, nothing more than what the Constitution enjoins us to do.
The electorate expects nothing less of us. Unity should therefore not be the prerequisite to fulfil this function. If the purpose of human fellowship is for action, this too, I posit, should be the purpose of a united opposition.
Yesterday’s notions of ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’ have become increasingly problematic. Spotting whether a policy is left wing, or a move to the right, depends on many things, including subtle shifts in political context, and a dialectic between politicians and parties. As a result, challenging incumbent governments on ideological grounds has proved futile in many democracies. I suspect it will continue to be futile here. This places the opposition a difficult position.
And too often the opposition’s participation in policy debates has impeded the unrelenting ruling-party’s spin-doctors parody that the opposition is, at best, an annoying interference or at worst, unpatriotic, as the government rolls out its meritorious programmes.
Try and do your job as an opposition politician in South Africa nowadays and ask an inconvenient parliamentary question or point out an obvious absurdity in government policy. The generosity of spirit and the readiness to reconcile, which so ostensibly define our new order, often disappear in an instant and the ANC, in a knee-jerk reaction, will label you a racist, a saboteur, a subversive, a dissenter or all of the above.
Being in opposition thus requires a stern frame of mind and requires stamina. To be relevant, a party must find the hairline crack in the argument of the day, pick up the hammer and deal a strong and decisive blow.
For this is the age of the permanent campaign. The term comes from current American political theory. Its application to the South African context is well supported by facts. Local research persistently shows that voter perceptions in South Africa are built over long periods of time on the basis of cumulative impressions.
Similarly, voter loyalty favours long-established political parties.
It is also hard earned, but lasting. Any winning strategy must, as a result, formulate itself within the context of a permanent campaign.
Seizing the initiative often means waiting for the government to stumble or exposing some scandal or irregularity. The former Chairperson of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA), for example, which uncovered vital evidence pertaining to the corrupt arms deal, was a former IFP MP. Opposition MP’s usually make names for themselves as exposés, like the DA’s new doughty member David Maynier (again over the arms procurement process) rather than as opinion makers. It would be a pity if Mr Maynier will be just remembered for his role in uncovering irregularities, and not for his elegant exposition of what the SADF should be for in his maiden speech, too.
It is actually hard to think of an example of when any opposition party has really captured the public imagination with a unique idea or selling point, to use marketing language, since 1994. The much touted Basic Income Grant (BIG) was adopted, not formulated, as a policy by opposition parties. Do opposition parties believe in ‘ring-fenced’taxation; a moderate or an increased interventionist role for the state? Do we support progressive tax credits or increased social grants, or a combination of both? Do we advocate a hawkish or dovish foreign policy? To quote the late Clara Peller, ‘where’s the beef?’
Opposition parties have largely failed to find a common voice on at least one or two issues. Our efforts have, in the past, been fragmented and lacking in strategic finesse. The rare exceptions have been a few joint opposition rallies against floor-crossing and a once off joint press conference in 2006 on the time allocated to opposition speakers in the debate on the tenth anniversary of the adoption the Constitution. More recently, four opposition parties sent a joint letter to President Zuma complaining that he did not fulfil his constitutional obligation to consult opposition leaders when he nominated a candidate for the position of Chief Justice (he apologised). But, again, this is reactive, institutional orientated, in the moment stuff, not proactive policy interventions. These disparate interventions do not constitute a raison d’être.
I would also like to strike a cautionary note about how tough uniting the opposition is by taking you, for a just a moment, to Westminster, where in the run up to the 1997 general election the Labour leader Tony Blair and his Liberal Democrat counterpart Sir Paddy Ashdown met clandestinely to work closely on a project intended to totally realign the Left in British politics. For the twentieth century had clearly been, in Britain at least, the Conservative century. It seemed that, to Blair and Ashdown, far more united the Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition parties than what divided them: a moderate role for the state; retaining Margaret Thatcher’s key market reforms; increased spending in public services; devolution, and so on.
The project ultimately failed because of Blair’s belief that he could not overcome the opposition within his own Cabinet. During their many meetings – some in the middle of the night – Ashdown and Blair built up the closest relationship of any two British political leaders in modern times. Yet, in due course, the bonhomie between the two left of centre parties evaporated, as the political exigencies of (Labour) being in office took hold.
After its devastating defeat in 1997, it took a long time (until David Cameron’s election in 2005) for the Official Opposition Conservatives to find their feet again. And it, paradoxically, often fell to the Liberal Democrats to supply decent opposition. They opposed, amongst other things, what they believed to be Labour’s growing authoritarianism in home affairs, the pretext for war in Iraq – the ‘dodgy dossier’ (which the official opposition supported), and their finance spokesperson proved to be way ahead of the times in warning that the credit bubble was about to explode.
Now, in terms of game theory and scenario reconstruction, what would have happened if the two protagonists’ (government and the second largest opposition party) had formed an electoral pact or even merged as Blair and Ashdown had envisaged?
The comparison is, of course, not entirely analogous to the South African situation because it is unlikely that our official opposition party will close the poll gap in the next parliament to defeat the ruling party. In other words, the path to power is likely to be longer and windier. But the opposition may make serious inroads in the 2011 election and win key metro and town councils. That is why it is good to talk now.
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, MP