Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Competitive Democracy in South Africa

Here's a NYT article that touches on a subject of some concern to me, the sheer dominance of the ANC in the political landscape of South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, April 13 - When South Africans go to the polls on Wednesday, as many as 7 of 10 will vote for the African National Congress, expanding a dominance that the party has maintained since 1994 and raising the question of whether the country's storied transition to democracy is taking an extended detour toward one-party rule.

President Thabo Mbeki, the A.N.C.'s leader, says the mere notion that its dominance threatens democracy borders on racism. In a newsletter released last week, Mr. Mbeki ridiculed "the fictional threat of a one-party state," calling it the creation of a white minority whose survival depends on ginning up opposition to what he called the A.N.C.'s multiracial coalition.

South Africa's most pressing political question, Mr. Mbeki wrote, is not whether it needs a strong political opposition, but whether voters can unite behind the A.N.C.'s "people's contract" to continue reconciliation after the abuses of apartheid.

One white who was a thinly veiled target of Mr. Mbeki's remarks, Tony Leon, heads the Democratic Alliance, the A.N.C.'s main, if distant, rival. In a telephone interview, Mr. Leon said South Africa under the A.N.C. was becoming "a de facto one-party state" at great risk of what he called "Putinization" - the slow erosion of democratic freedoms by a party whose power is hard to resist.

"The A.N.C. is a hegemonic party," he said. "I'm not saying that there have been markedly undemocratic or antidemocratic practices. But the kind of majority-party influence on institutions in this country is very deep."

Perhaps so. Eyebrows shot up three years ago when, in the midst of a parliamentary inquiry into a particularly seamy government arms deal, the A.N.C. majority abruptly cleaned house at the investigating committee, packing it with less aggressive legislators. The inquiry soon came to naught. "It's kind of as if George Bush were getting punished by the Senate Intelligence Committee in its investigation, and one day he simply replaced all the Republicans with compliant members," said Robert B. Mattes, a political polling expert and an associate professor of political science at the University of Cape Town.

But such cases appear isolated. Among African democracies, few if any are as robust and freewheeling as this one, even with the A.N.C.'s virtual lock on the levers of power.

The press is British-style raucous and scandal-seeking. Special interest groups on issues like AIDS and land reform are unfettered and sometimes effective in changing the government's direction. The Constitution is revered for its fairness and resistance to political tinkering - and the Constitutional Court regularly rules against the government.

Flocks of opposition parties regularly and fearlessly flay Mr. Mbeki and his ruling party for all sorts of sins, without fear of being suppressed or harassed.

Despite Mbeki's worrying complacency with regards to the situation in Zimbabwe (no doubt motivated in large part by a misplaced sense of loyalty to a former comrade), and notwithstanding his even more alarming indifference to the problem posed by HIV within South Africa's own borders, it still is the case that Mbeki has not displayed any of the grandiosity or contempt for pluralism put on show by Sam Nujoma, or Mugabe from his very earliest days in office.1 It is also natural that complaints from the white minority about de-facto one-party rule will reek of hypocrisy in the eyes of the black majority, given the National Party's uninterrupted monopoly of power from 1948 to 1991, and its penchant for packing all the branches of the state with its loyal supporters; for instance, the army went from 10 of the 16 most senior officers being English in 1950 to 8 of 11 being Afrikaners in 1960, while the railways went from being all-English at the top levels in 1949 to being all-Afrikaner by 19552.

Still, the issue isn't whether South Africa is or isn't about to enter into a new era of one-party rule - such a thing is clearly not unprecedented in the country's history - but whether one-party rule would be a healthy development for the country, and the precedent set by the National Party is hardly the best argument in favor of such a position. Who can really dispute that everyone would have been better off in the long run if the likes of Helen Suzman had been able to realistically contest the dominance of the National Party during the 50s and 60s? One party rule isn't necessarily a recipe for Zimbabwe-style chaos, as the examples of Japan and Sweden demonstrate, but it does tend to breed a sense of complacency in the dominant party, as well as an intellectual atrophy in the political life of a nation. What is more, even in the best situations, it can lead to horrendous abuses, as the case of Sweden's eugenic sterilization programmes, which continued until well into the 1970s, illustrates, while in less benign situations it can lead to jaw-dropping levels of political corruption - see Japan's LDP. In less favorable situations than those of Japan and Sweden, one-party rule usually leads to the erosion of fundamental freedoms over the long run, Singapore, Malaysia and Putin's Russia being just a few non-African examples of what I'm getting at.

Now, it's all very well for armchair observers like me to say that the prolonged overwhelming dominance of a single party isn't healthy for the preservation of individual freedoms and a democratic culture, but what is one to do about the current situation? The unpleasant reality is that outside of the ANC, there just aren't that many alternatives on offer, and none of them have the credibility with the black majority that the party which did so much to advance their cause naturally possesses. One might wish that black South Africans were like the Poles, who were quick to abandon Solidarity once communism fell, or like the British, who showed their gratitude to Churchill by throwing him out of power just as soon as World War 2 had been won, but South Africa has an ugly legacy that neither Poland nor Britain had to contend with, and that legacy is one of extreme racial polarization.

It is with an awareness of this history in mind that I conclude that the Democratic Alliance, whatever the anti-apartheid credentials of Tony Leon, will never make much headway against the ANC while Tony Leon and other whites are the public face of the party, as most of the black majority will see it only in racial terms, as the party for "rich white folk." Like it or not, the days when blacks could abide being represented in parliament by whites are gone for good. If any South African opposition party wishes to make a deeper impression on the national landscape than that managed by the Democratic Alliance or the New National Party, it would do well to take this reality on board.

1 -The fact is that Mugabe never hid his contempt for multiparty democracy; right from the start he made it clear that his preference was for a one-party state. A lot of people would like to imagine that the ongoing developments in Zimbabwe couldn't have been foreseen, but it just ain't so. Perhaps we ought to take the words of elected would-be dictators more at face value, rather than downplay them as mere grandstanding?

2 - See Frank Welsh's A History of South Africa, ISBN 0-00-638421-8.