Is South Africa going the Zimbabwean way?

The complaint by opposition parties that South Africa is fast becoming a one-party state is stubbornly not going away, and is set to dominate the forthcoming election.

In this view, the African National Congress is becoming too powerful and is likely to subvert South Africa’s democracy, running the country into the ground in the process. Some people — tongue in cheek — claim this has already happened.

Thus these people or parties appeal to voters to help them stop this supposed slide, which in fashionable talk means South Africa is going “the Zimbabwean way”.

It is indeed a very scary and depressing scenario.

But is this an accurate reflection of the reality in South Africa and the future of its democracy?


Clearly, the ANC is a strong and dominant party. In 1994 it won 63% of the votes, increased its support to almost two-thirds in 1999, and is most likely to gain in popularity again this year.

And there is always a danger to democracy if state and party lines are blurred.

But to argue that a dominant-party system necessarily leads to a one-party state indicates facile analysis. A dominant-party system cannot be equated to a one-party system.

What is problematic about this view is that it has no faith in the intelligence of most South African voters.

Apparently, they are so bereft of reasoning that they are creating before their own eyes a monster they will not be able to control in the future.

What is also disturbing about this view is the unstated assertion that it is wrong for a party to have massive support in a democratic system.

Voters are placing their faith and trust in the ANC under conditions of free will — not under conditions of duress, deception or any other nefarious trick.

A much more serious indictment of this view is that it refuses to recognise that the ANC is doing something right — if we seriously take into consideration the views of voters.

The argument used commonly to support this view — that voters primarily support the ANC because of its liberation credentials and that it is “black” — is too simplistic.

Is it possible that rational voters will continue to support a party that will act against their interests — no matter how impeccable its liberation credentials?

What happened to Mugabe’s “liberation credentials”? Zimbabweans are increasingly dispensing with them.

Why are black voters not voting for the other “black” parties in South Africa, especially the Pan Africanist Congress?

Tellingly, this view reveals the inability of opposition parties to craft messages that are in tune with the aspirations and needs of the majority of South African voters.

They hide behind tired explanations of emotion- and identity-driven voters to explain their weakness.

Let us consider the Democratic Alliance and the Inkatha Freedom Party in this regard, as the other opposition parties are in reality marginal to South African politics.

Take the DA. Contrary to the popular belief that most black voters don’t vote for it because it is a white party, it just does not represent the majority viewpoint of the poor and those generally from a disadvantaged background.

The views of the majority are paramount in any democracy — if we are genuine in respecting and promoting a democratic culture. And why is the majority viewpoint a problem in South Africa when it is the basis of democracy globally?

In as much as identity politics around race and ethnicity are a factor in South African politics, grossly to exaggerate their influence is taking the easy way out.

The DA’s right-wing/conservative politics, framed around the unmitigated application of free-market economics that have the potential seriously to undermine workers, also alienates most black voters from the party.

Equally, the view that South African workers are pampered and business should be given unlimited leverage over workers is not in the interest of most of these workers, the most influential segment of voters.

Regarding the IFP, despite its exaggerated definition as a black and Zulu party — and it is neither — the point to note that is that it is also an ultra-conservative party that represents views that are largely antagonistic to most South African voters, who are mostly black and many of whom are Zulu.

The very essence of IFPs politics — Zulu ethnicity — has been emphatically rejected by South African voters, and tellingly by the majority of Zulu voters.

The IFP is also brazenly anti-workers and pro-capital, but hides behind ethnic mobilisation. Its relationship to South African workers is hostile, to say the least.

Arguably it formed the United Workers’ Union of South Africa, its trade union wing, primarily to counter the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

It is no wonder then that the IFP is in alliance with the DA.

Therefore, the whole debate around the one-party state view is diversionary as it hides a serious flaw in South African opposition politics: the failure to address the material interests of the majority.

It is time to de-emphasise the identity and emotive argument and get to the concrete issues.

Dr Thabisi Hoeane is a lecturer in the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University Grahamstown. He contributes regularly to national print media. His PhD was on South African Electoral Studies and Democratisation.

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