/ 3 June 2021

Making voices heard: Freedom of expression and intra-party democracy

Economic Freedom Fighters Campaign Rally Ahead Of South African Election
The Helen Zille tweets are perhaps well known but they are not the only example. For supporting the controversial song Kill the Boer, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters Julius Malema landed in hot water and was subsequently taken to court. (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In this third article in the My Vote Counts (MVC) series on intra-party democracy (IPD) we focus on freedom of expression within the political parties. This freedom is not unique to IPD; rather it is a fundamental human right enshrined in our constitution. 

That said, freedom of expression is crucial to political parties because it will promote diverse opinions, debates and allow individuals to speak without fear. Freedom of expression is a protected right that at times seems to come into conflict with the rules and regulations imposed on members by political parties.

The ability to express oneself is a right that is critical to the democratic functioning of a political party; just as in ordinary society it allows for the exchange of ideas and opinions. At times the right to express oneself has given rise to public derision or stimulated a contentious debate. This can stem in particular from the rhetoric of high-profile or senior figures from South Africa’s major political parties. A prominent example is provided by the case of Helen Zille, federal council chair of the Democratic Alliance (DA). In June 2020, Zille tweeted that there were more racist laws in South Africa currently than there were during the apartheid regime. This comparison, by a high-ranking member of the country’s main opposition party, of a post-apartheid democratic South Africa to a regime which had been responsible for gross human rights atrocities brought negative attention to the DA. 

Following the public backlash to Zille’s claim on social media, the DA launched an investigation into the tweets. More importantly, beyond garnering negative publicity for the DA, the incident stimulated debate and drew attention to the responsibility of individuals when exercising their right to freedom of expression.

While Zille’s example casts a spotlight on how freedom of expression can have adverse consequences for the party, it is nonetheless important for individuals to be able to express themselves freely, especially when their opinion will further stimulate debate and political development.

Unlike other elements of IPD that we have discussed in our previous articles on accountability and political inclusivity, the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association are universally recognised human rights. Sections 16–18 of our constitution further guarantee these rights.

A positive or negative effect

The exercising of freedom of expression can have either a positive or negative effect on political parties. IPD advocates that the protection afforded to civil liberties by democracy should be reflected within the political party environment.  The internal culture of a political party should not coerce members into remaining silent about concerns a member may have. Members should be able to speak freely regarding any internal party affairs or any other matter they seek to raise.

From the perspective of IPD, freedom of expression is crucial because it allows members to contest ideas and policies without fear that they will be prejudiced or unduly punished for expressing their views freely. Members of a political party are free-thinking individuals and even though they pledge their allegiance to a particular political party, it does not mean that they have to share the same view on everything. Difference of opinion and ideas along with the ability to critique and oppose opinions freely and openly, irrespective of a member’s position, are key elements that sustain a democratic culture within a political party.

While debate should be encouraged especially if it leads to positive development within the party, the voicing of contrary opinions can also be divisive. Knowing how to tow the party line and advance the party can sometimes be a difficult task. Like many of our rights, freedom of expression is not absolute and there have been examples when the exercising of this right has caused much fanfare. The Helen Zille tweets are perhaps well known but they are not the only example. For supporting the controversial song Kill the Boer, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters Julius Malema landed in hot water and was subsequently taken to court. The singing of Kill the Boer led Afriforum to take Malema to court, where Judge Colin Lamont ruled that the words “shoot the boer” constituted hate speech. If anything, the Malema case highlighted the contested nature of the freedom of expression, especially where it relates to symbols and signifiers of our divided past.

In a more recent case, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula in exercising his right of freedom of speech spoke out against the relationship between the ANC and the Gupta family. In an interview with Newzoom Afrika, Mbalula stated that it was hard to defend the ANC leadership  as there have been warnings about the Gupta family and the crisis this would cause in the country.  Mbalula further stated that if he were to be dismissed from the ruling party, he would be dismissed for telling the truth.

The Mbalula case highlights an example of the importance of voicing an opinion and the trouble this can cause when a political party tries to present a united front. 

The tension between freedom of speech and political parties is precisely that point: encouraging diverse opinions and not silencing opinions of party members while also presenting a united front. 

While it may cause an upset to the party, sometimes the outspoken nature of party members can serve to benefit the broader public as they can shed light on matters of public interest. For example, former finance minister Pravin Gordhan was fired in 2017 by then-president Jacob Zuma for what we now know to be Gordhan’s stand against corruption and the Gupta family. While not popular in the Zuma administration for his views, Gordhan is a good example of an individual who stayed true to his beliefs.

In some cases, even the negative attention received by a party following an outburst by one of its members can be a good way to illustrate how it upholds other elements of IPD, such as party discipline and accountability. Even when being vocal seems contrary to a party’s key stances, it still provides an opportunity for the party to showcase how well it exercises democratic principles in a manner that does not unnecessarily impede freedom of expression. It also provides an opportunity for the party to showcase that it conducts fair disciplinary processes, as in the case of the Helen Zille tweets.

Protecting the right to freedom of expression invites the necessary contestation of ideas, debate and deliberation. These ideas can have the power to both provoke and to stimulate positive development. 

Party members are still free-thinking individuals whose ideas, opinions and criticisms should be part of a party’s political democratic culture. This point can be tricky when the dissenting opinions can be seen as counter to the party culture or stance on a particular topic. However, party members should feel comfortable to make themselves heard, not only on public platforms, but also within structures of the party, where elites do not go unchallenged. Just as a democracy protects the civil liberties of citizens and voters to participate fairly, freely and equally in elections and in civic engagement, a party should foster a healthy political culture that invites the contestation of ideas.