By Raenette Taljaard (The Times)
The past week witnessed two events in South African opposition politics that signal significant shifts in opposition alignment.
On Wednesday the leaders of eight of South Africa’s opposition parties (DA, Cope, IFP, UDM, ID, ACDP, FF+ and UCDP) met in what was described by UDM leader Bantu Holomisa as “a fruitful meeting”. The parties’ leaders resolved to establish a small committee to develop and draft a framework for their future co-operation .
It seems clear that the parties have an eye on the 2011 local government elections.
Holomisa also announced a closer alignment in Parliament, with plans for the whips of various parties set to assist in coming up with clear proposals for what such co- operation would entail.
Holomisa said: “It is our common goal to ensure that multi-party democracy is strengthened and the threat of one-party dominance is averted. In that spirit, we have agreed to continue meeting on a regular basis … .”
This development marks a significant step in the realignment of opposition forces in South Africa.
Equally significantly, Die Burger carried opinion pieces by DA leader Helen Zille and Cope president Mosiuoa Lekota on August 26, in which both leaders emphasised the need to forge any future co- operation on the basis of values and policies and a vision for South Africa — and not merely as a ganging-up exercise. This, too, marks a departure from previous attempts at co-operation, such as the DA/NNP disaster and the DA/IFP Coalition for Change that was hastily forged prior to the 2004 poll, only to backfire in KwaZulu-Natal.
Then, on Thursday, President Jacob Zuma re-instituted a well-worn Mandela-era tradition and met the leaders of opposition parties to discuss matters of mutual interest.
This, too, marked a significant shift for opposition politics, where the mere existence of the opposition was often treated as a deeply unpatriotic expression of warped interests during the Mbeki era
During the meeting of the opposition parties , agreement was reached on a set of issues to raise with President Zuma, among them his nomination of Justice Sandile Ngcobo as chief justice. This is a specific example of where opposition co-operation has been forged: Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke has been jointly nominated by opposition parties as their preferred candidate .
Other areas where a common voice was found prior to the Zuma meeting included the Iraq oil-for- food Donen report, as well as the recent spate of violent service delivery protests and a host of constitutional democracy issues (including the independence of the IEC and issues pertaining to the SABC).
While these events and developments are important , the opposition face three immediate strategic challenges that will require clear and bold thinking about what strategies to adopt together .
First, opposition parties will have to make a clear decision what form their co-operation will take, especially close to another election .
Will they merge and create a new party, work in an electoral non- aggression pact or create a loose coalition like the Rainbow Coalition in Kenya a few years back?
This is not a trivial question; it could be argued that a merger could excite the voters while it could also be argued, as it was prior to the 2009 poll, that parties ought to maximise their votes, leveraging their own brands and then co-operate subsequently.
Second, the engaging tone of the Zuma administration creates a dilemma for the opposition, who wish to appear engaged as guardians of democracy yet reasonable — not petulant — with a president all too ready to meet, engage, listen to their concerns and actually have a debate.
Zuma’s clear statements about his “slip of the tongue” about Justice Ngcobo after meeting with DA leader Athol Trollip and his clear apologies and subsequent efforts to communicate with the opposition about a sensitive appointment is an example of the fine line opposition parties have to tread not to appear unreasonable and petulant.
Third, there is an institutional reform question concerning the future of the provinces that will pose unique challenges to opposition strategies predicated on attaining power to demonstrate alternative models of governing and governance.
The review of the provinces and “macro structure” of government therefore poses a clear threat to these strategies.
This is even more pertinent given that existing legislative agenda items such as the creation of a single public service, as well as the 17th Constitution Amendment Bill, already starts the process of hollowing out these alternative centres of power.
While recent events do signal certain shifts in opposition ranks, history dictates clearly that the politics of the long haul is what creates enduring values-based realignments that can foster a political culture based on issue-driven politics. This journey has but only begun in South Africa. A long road lies ahead.
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
By Raenette Taljaard (The Times)