Political defections hit hard

The New National Party is crumbling from the top after nine senior MPs defected this week to rejoin the party’s erstwhile partner, the Democratic Alliance.

The changes took place during the window period recently passed into law for national and provincial political representatives to move to new parties without losing their seats. The exodus also happened just a few months after NNP leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk’s crafty footwork resurrected the party at municipal level after an ugly divorce from the DA.

The African National Congress, the NNP’s senior partner in cooperative governance, has secured the two-thirds majority in Parliament that it missed by a hair’s breadth in 1999. All it took was a single defection from the United Democratic Movement.

Three new political parties are now represented in Parliament without ever having received a cross on a ballot paper.

Erstwhile Pan Africanist Congress firebrand Patricia de Lille has decided to go it alone under the banner of her new Independent Democrats after repeatedly and publicly differing with her party on policy. She described her move as “taking a leap of faith”.

Teresa Millin, an Inkatha Freedom Party MP from KwaZulu-Natal, realised her party’s fears that she would defect. Days after being redeployed to Parliament as the IFP reshuffled positions in the provincial legislature to eliminate the threat of floor-crossing, she became the African Independent Movement.

Cassie Aucamp gave up his pipe and took up his parliamentary seat as the leader of National Action.

In Parliament, the NNP’s numbers have been reduced from 27 to 18. Not even NNP chief whip Boy Geldenhuys’s angry words that the party was “prepared to pay the price for doing the right thing” could mask the empty brown benches where the defectors used to sit in the National Assembly.

New seating arrangements would only be made at the end of the defection period, but DA chief whip Douglas Gibson seemed content to share his bench with former NNPstalwart Sheila Camerer.

She announced her defection with a beaming smile, saying it was the fulfilment of a wish to sit near Tony Leon again after being trapped in the party of apartheid for 18 months. “You go, Sheila. You go, girl,” was the enthusiastic encouragement from the assembled DA members on Monday.

But the floor-crossing was clearly calculated to maintain political careers, despite the new DA members’ statements that they had lost confidence in Van Schalkwyk and their pledges of loyalty to Leon.

Some of the more verkrampte ex-Nats had chatted with other parties before throwing their weight behind the DA. Camerer’s defection was preceded by months of speculation that she was “making eyes” at the DA, though repeatedly promising to remain loyal to the NNP.

The ANC punted the law to free NNP councillors from the DA umbrella under which they had contested the December 2000 municipal elections. It had struck a deal to cooperate with the NNP; in return the NNP delivered the Western Cape’s provincial administration and the Cape Town municipality.

Then, as now, predictions of the NNP’s demise were rife. Van Schalkwyk must come up with more fancy footwork, because his Western Cape premiership hangs in the balance. The NNP now has only 11 representatives in the provincial legislature, including the vacancy caused by the suspension of ex-premier Peter Marais for soliciting a bribe. The ANC holds 22 seats and the DA eight.

For now the Western Cape ANC has not renegotiated the agreement that gives the NNP the premiership and half the posts in the provincial cabinet. But a hard fight is expected in next year’s elections.

The exodus has also affected other provincial legislatures.

The IFP-DA alliance in KwaZulu-Natal rests on a knife-edge after the ANC picked up two new members. This week’s defection of Education MEC Gabriel Ndabandaba to the ANC blindsided the IFP. DA stalwart Omie Singh also caught his party off guard.

This once again puts control of the province within the ANC’s grasp, eight months after it prematurely announced a majority in the legislature with five defectors. But the defectors were unable to take up their seats because of a Constitutional Court ruling that they had jumped the gun.

The shenanigans have extended to the Eastern Cape, where the NNP is leaderless. Hours after party boss Willem le Roux defected to the DA, his deputy and the effective interim leader Tyrone Liberty joined the UDM.

“The political parties may think this [floor-crossing] is perfectly appropriate behaviour, but the voters don’t think that,” said Paul Graham, executive director of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa). “The good thing is there’s only one year to an election.”

An Idasa-Afrobarometer survey last December found “no seismic shift” in support for the different political parties, the main justification for introducing defection laws. The survey revealed that 40% of voters nationally either would not vote or did not want to express their opinions.

Public representatives who cross the floor to other parties anger South Africans. Nationally, 54% of all respondents (49% of black respondents) said they felt very angry and 19% said they had no feelings about the issue, according to an AC Nielsen-Business Day survey.

Despite the recent boost from the ANC-NNP cooperation pact, the NNP is in trouble again. It lost its status as official opposition after the 1999 election. “Once a party gets so small it can’t easily mobilise voters,” said Graham.

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