Constitutional change is not the only way in which an overwhelming victory can poison a democracy.
It is worth going back to the context of that article - for it casts on interesting light on the dangers ‘overwhelming' majorities hold for new democracies. What triggered opposition concern at a two-thirds majority for the ANC were statements Motlanthe himself had made to the Sunday Times the week before.
The ANC was then in the initial stages of bringing all state organs under party control - including those whose independence was supposedly guaranteed by the constitution.
Motlanthe told the newspaper that if the ANC gained a two-thirds majority in 1999 it planned to use it to review the power held by independent watchdog bodies such as the judicial services commission, the auditor general, the attorneys general, and the reserve bank.
The Sunday Times stated, "The call to transform the civil service, an issue discussed at the ANC's NEC last weekend, is the result of growing frustration within the party that, it has been unable to grasp the key levers of power."
In the event, as Motlanthe noted on Friday, the ANC did not change the constitution post-1999 (at least to facilitate this project). But this was not because it had a change of heart on the matter but simply because it was able to simply bypass the relevant constitutional provisions by deploying cadres to head up these institutions (see here.). The mainstream English language press failed to put up any meaningful opposition to this programme at the time.
(It is not quite true that the ANC has never used its two-thirds majority in parliament to change the constitution for nefarious purposes. In 2002 it passed a constitutional amendment to allow floor crossing - something that it did purely to stuff up the opposition. That the DA idiotically went along with that legislation does not negate this fact.)
The lessons of that era are twofold: Firstly, an ‘overwhelming' majority tends to have a quieting effect on civil society, while stoking the hubris and power-hunger of the ruling party. As the political scientist Maurice Duverger noted, if a party's electoral majority is great, its authority is great, "it is not embarrassed by the opposition; it can claim to represent the will of the country." If a ruling party has a two thirds majority this on its own provides a powerful disincentive against going to court to challenge the constitutionality of legislation.
Secondly, a constitution that can effectively be ignored or bypassed does not need to be changed. For example, over the past few years there has apparently been pervasive (and illicit) bugging of private telephone conversations by the security services. Must the ANC be commended for not changing the constitution to allow for such a gross invasion of privacy - or condemned for creating a politicised state able to flout the law with such impunity?
A Jacob Zuma presidency has the potential to be better than many middle class South Africans expect - or much worse. As the Economist put it Zuma certainly has the personal qualities with which to confound the sceptics. But he could equally turn out to be another African ‘Big Man,' a political chief "for whom government is the accumulation of personal power and the dispensation of favours."
This uncertainty about the kind of government South Africa will end up with after April 22 is not helped by the highly contradictory statements of ANC leaders about the intentions of the ruling party. In a speech last year ANC Treasurer General Mathews Phosa said that one of the mistakes the ruling party had made "was to allow a process that resulted in too many casualties of well-meaning, skilful and patriotic experts in the public sector. In addition, the exit of white people from the civil service who had a contribution to make followed an unfortunate course that resulted in a skills vacuum in some areas of the public service." Only last week he re-emphasised this point saying that it was necessary to ensure, "The protection and involvement of minorities in all spheres of life, and the correction of mistakes we made in this regard in the past."
Yet, in an interview published in the Sunday Argus over the weekend the party's secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, promised almost the exact opposite. He said the ANC planned a post-election racial and political purge of the security forces - regardless of the cost. He complained that many of the key people at an operational level were still from the "old order," and relatively few came from MK and APLA: "You have to pay people out now. We know it is expensive to reverse the results of a negotiated settlement. Transformation must be done. It is costly, but it is investment."
Much is going to depend on the size of the ANC's majority. A substantially reduced majority would remove many of the temptations that come from being able to change the constitution at will, would go some way to humbling the ruling party, and would strengthen the morale of civil society. By contrast, yet another overwhelming majority for the ANC would have the opposite effect. It would demoralise the press, the opposition and civil society while providing encouragement to the worst elements and tendencies within the ANC. It would reopen the door to a return to all that went wrong during the Mbeki-era.