In 1994 we asked you to vote for change. Twenty years later, we ask you to use your vote to dilute overweening political power.
We have no regrets about supporting the ANC in South Africa’s “freedom election” or that we continued to back it in 1999 and even 2004. By 2009, however, we trod cautiously, endorsing “you the voter” rather than a political party.
We expressed excitement in 1994 about what South Africa stood to achieve as a country. Some voters feared what lay ahead, but the majority believed an ANC-led government would realise their long-suppressed hopes and aspirations. “This is a time to vote for change, to be part of the movement to build a new non-racial national identity,” we said in our editorial before that momentous poll.
The challenges were vast: the deracialisation of the state, closing the huge socioeconomic gap between rich and poor, healing racial divisions. The Mail & Guardian argued for a balance between market forces and a Keynesian approach that would allow the state to “overcome the terrible imbalances we inherit from the past”. We believed then that such a crucial, urgent reconstruction and transformative agenda would be driven by the ANC.
The other parties that contested the 1994 election offered no meaningful alternative. The NP was burdened by its ugly past and collapsed a decade later. The PAC offered a narrowly defined and politically utopian, socialist order. The DA’s predecessor, the Democratic Party, was plagued by poor leadership and focused on wooing minorities. The IFP’s tribal politics and role in KwaZulu-Natal’s civil war made it deeply unappealing; it, too, has withered.
Looking back, we acknowledge that the ANC tried, in difficult circumstances, to reconstruct a shattered country. There have been gains in areas such as housing and social grants. Empowerment and other policies of redress have fuelled the emergence of a black political, professional and business class. The majority of South Africans have been dragged from the abyss of poverty, hopelessness and humiliation. Yet it is equally undeniable that racial and class inequalities are worse. Also, the nascent tendencies in the ANC that bothered us in 1994 have burgeoned monstrously over the years. We were disturbed in 1994 by some of the names on the ANC’s parliamentary list, such as ex-homeland outcasts. The current list includes a host of individuals marked by corruption and scandal – and at least two criminal suspects.
We said two decades ago that the ANC “has shown unwillingness to act against individuals responsible for human rights abuses or incompetence”. We were unimpressed by certain senior ANC figures who had “a flexible commitment to human rights, and who seem only too willing to accept the argument that such rights may be suspended under the … special circumstances and tough pressures that the new government is likely to face”.
Today, in the faction-ridden party of 2014, national and provincial cabinets are packed with incompetents who owe their positions to their loyalty to Jacob Zuma. Today, Cabinet ministers openly favour cutting fundamental rights through statutory media controls and a secrecy law – and they are cheered on by time-serving ANC MPs, who slavishly obey the party bosses.
Perhaps the most alarming product of years of single-party dominance has been the growth of political arrogance and unaccountability. As its cynical response to the Nkandla scandal illustrates, the ANC feels it can brush aside criticism and public concern because it believes its right to govern is assured.
The M&G promised in 1994 that “we will watch it [the new government] even more closely than we watched the last, because we now have higher expectations”. Twenty years later, we believe the ruling party’s performance, governance values and sense of accountability – not just its past glory – should earn it votes.
No one doubts that after May 7 the ANC will still command a majority. How does the electorate prevail on it to do its job properly: create jobs, curb crime and remedy appalling defects in the public health and education systems? How do we make its representatives more responsive?
By diluting the ruling party’s power, we would argue – and that means narrowing its majority by swelling the opposition vote and even, in some provinces, forcing the ANC to rule in coalition. In Germany, the ruling Christian Democratic Union was forced into cooperating with the Social Democratic Party; in Britain, the Liberal Democrats have toned down Tory dominance.
A narrower margin means the opposition tightens the leash on the ruling party, and can make better use of legislatures to stem government excesses. One of South Africa’s most pressing political problems is the failure of legislators to perform their constitutional duty of overseeing the executive – because they are beholden to their party hierarchy, not constituents.
The Democrats in the United States, under Nancy Pelosi, tamed the dying George W Bush administration. In a fully-fledged democracy, voters force politicians to account by swinging power between parties – in Africa, Ghana and Zambia have reached that level of maturity.
The Western Cape perhaps offers a local example. One can argue that the narrowness of the DA’s majority in 2009 kept it in check. A similar effect could be observed in Cape Town when a multiparty front ruled in 2006.
Never before has the M&G urged readers to oppose the ANC. But we do so now because the aim is to make the ANC more effective and responsive. It is to hold it to the values it espoused in 1994. It is a tactic that should be palatable even to those who have historically supported the party.
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M&G election editorials