/ 23 January 2014

SA’s oddest marriages of convenience

Julius Malema and Mangosuthu Buthelezi cosy up to a new opportunism.
Julius Malema and Mangosuthu Buthelezi cosy up to a new opportunism.

Julius Malema has that look about him. You know the one – it's been snapped whenever he's discovered a new older male to look up to. He's worn it next to Robert Mugabe, Thabo Mbeki, Cassel Mathale and once, a seeming aeon ago, alongside Jacob Zuma.

Think high-wattage smile, scrunched-up cheeks and beaming eyes. The elder politician next to him this time around plays along perfectly, hooking his hand into the crook of Malema's arm and tilting his head to smile benevolently at the young politician.

The only thing wrong with the image is that the man next to him is Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) mainstay and the person Malema once called a "factory fault" during a war of words between the two that began during the run-up to the 2009 election when Malema was still the ANC Youth League's motormouth president.

It was a war we assumed was still raging, given Buthelezi's doomsday comments as recently as September last year about Malema's newly formed party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). But on Monday, the two met the media in KwaZulu-Natal to bury the hatchet.

Malema and Buthelezi's sudden co-operation – it's not an alliance, they've stressed – has less to do with the orphaned Malema's internal psychology and more to do with good old-fashioned political pragmatism.

The EFF needs a foot in the door in KwaZulu-Natal, which is dominated by the ANC and the IFP, analysts say – and the IFP, well, just needs to remind ­people it's still around.

But as surprising as their friendship is, they are hardly the most unlikely ­political bedfellows this country has seen.

The National Party (NP) gets the award for being the most indiscriminate bed-hopper of a political party, thanks to its inability to decide whether it was aligned to the ANC or opposed to it. It entered a short-lived alliance with the ruling ANC in 1994. By 1997, that experiment had failed and it pulled out of the government of national unity and tried to shake off its apartheid legacy by rebranding itself the New National Party (NNP). But come the 1999 elections, it had haemorrhaged support.

The party then cosied up to the growing opposition in the form of the then Democratic Party, turning it into the Democratic Alliance (DA) in a merger in 2000. A year later, the party left the DA for another ANC alliance.

By 2005, the party had lost most of its electoral support and voted to disband itself, with its leaders being absorbed into the DA and the ANC over the years. And that is why you have Theuns Botha as a senior DA leader and Marthinus van Schalkwyk in the ANC government as our tourism minister. Schizophrenic much?

Freedom Alliance
One peculiar alliance that spoke most directly to our fractured history was that involving groups of right-wing whites bent on defying the new South Africa, disgruntled IFP members and the leader of an apartheid-created homeland, Lucas Mangope. That unlikely coalition stormed out of multiparty talks dominated by the ANC and the NP.

Mangope refused to relinquish the limited power invested in him by the apartheid system and join the rest of South Africa in its first multiracial elections in 1994.

His people were inclined to dis-agree, but Mangope faced down riots in what was then known as Bophuthatswana by inviting his Afrikaner allies to crush dissenters when his own police refused to act. It ended with the deaths of three Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging members being ­televised on the evening news, and is a lasting image of a failed attempt to stop the march of democracy.

ID and DA
No one was particularly surprised when Patricia de Lille's merged her party, the Independent Democrats (ID), with the Democratic Alliance in 2010. The move was purely pragmatic and ensured De Lille's political survival after her party was decimated in the 2009 elections with less than 1% of the vote.

The manoeuvre resulted in her political career being rejuvenated after her election as mayor of Cape Town, and gave the top members of her party a fighting chance at success within the bigger DA, which itself gained from the addition of a much-needed dash of colour and struggle credentials to its top leadership.

But given her political background, the move to the white-dominated, pro-capitalist DA was odd. In 2003 De Lille split from the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), started by Robert Sobukwe where she made her name. The PAC was established in 1959 after the lack of consensus on the Africanist debate within the ANC and the adoption of the Freedom Charter.

Fast forward to 2011, when De Lille, one of the PAC's most popular former members, posed on a rainbow nation-themed poster campaigning for a largely white party: the image of De Lille, Lindiwe Mazibuko and Helen Zille heavily Photoshopped and beaming down on the country from street poles.

And the PAC? With just 0.27% of the vote in the last national election, not too many people will bet big money on it making a comeback to echo its Sobukwe glory days.

Photo-op alliances
There are others, of course, most recently the Collective for Democracy: a collection of dying parties with weak internal democracy systems whose sole common interest is opposition to the ruling ANC.

But in terms of policy and ideology, the African Christian Democratic Party, the Congress of the People, the Freedom Front Plus, the IFP and the United Christian Democratic Party vary widely and are unlikely to go beyond that week's photo opportunity.

Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni puts the history of strange political alliances in this country down to a weak democracy that values ­personality over policy.

"In terms of ideology and ­policy, South Africa is still not well grounded," he says.

"Politics is more about personality. It is for that reason that you see such fluidity and flux in changes of alliances, which have nothing to do with policy."

But the convenience of mutually beneficial political alliances outweighs the value of consistency when it comes to politics. As Fikeni says, in politics, there are no permanent friends or enemies – only ­permanent interests.