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Loss of power is the ultimate motivator for governing parties to fulfill promises

Associate Professor William Gumede
13 May 2024

A developing democracy is only consolidated or matured when a dominant governing party or leader, following the inception of multiparty elections loses power, accept the loss, and go peacefully into opposition.

This means that South Africa’s democracy is still not consolidated or matured. Many countries in Africa that has had multiparty elections, but governing parties and leaders remain firmly in power for years, with no prospect of the opposition taking over, either because governing parties manipulate the rules against opposition parties, steal elections or opposition parties are not able to position themselves as credible alternative governments to the electorate, are also not consolidated or matured democracies.

The role of opposition parties is critical in determining the level of accountability of governing parties and governments, the effectiveness of public service delivery, the levels of development, and the extend of corruption. In short, the quality of opposition parties, help determine the overall quality of a country’s democracy.

Since Liberia became the first African country to become independent on 26 July 1847, almost all African countries governed by parties and leaders that have been in power for long uninterrupted period have remained mired in poverty, joblessness, indebtedness, lawlessness, failed states, civil war, and country breakdowns.

This is because these parties and leaders in power for long periods have little incentives to develop their countries, tackle corruption and reduce poverty, because voters will always vote for them, whether based on their past struggle credentials, ethnic solidarity or because wrongly think parties should be supported like soccer clubs, not matter how they perform in government.

The reality is that the only incentives for parties and leaders to become accountable, deliver public services, remain reasonably uncorrupt and appoint competent officials is if they fear losing power. This means that contrary to what leaders, especially African liberation or independence movement leaders may say that they are there for the ‘people’, for ‘poor’, for the ‘disadvantaged’, or to advance ‘transformation’, these in reality are all empty slogans. Losing power is the only incentives to governing parties and leaders to deliver to the so-called ‘people’, ‘poor’ or ‘disadvantaged’ – not good intentions, statements, or slogans.

Therefore, the key to get public services, jobs and clean government to the ‘people’ is to have opposition parties that have realistic chances to replace sitting governments.

It is critical that opposition parties be accepted by all citizens as part of the democracy. However, in South Africa, and many African countries, especially where liberation and independence movements are in power, or where party politics have been super-imposed on racial, ethnic, civil, violent, religious, and ideological identities, whichever identity party is in power, sees the other groups or parties in opposition, wrongly as the “enemy”.

This way of viewing politics undermines accountable, clean government and service delivery, because voters support their parties based on these cleavages, not based on their competence, honesty, and performance in government. This means that the parties and leaders supported based on such loyal identities will never have the incentive to deliver public services, development, and clean government, because their supporters vote for them, on identity, no matter what they do on government. This is almost like supporters seeing their parties in the same way as they see football teams, such as Kaizer Chiefs or Amazulu, supporting these teams in ‘thick and thin’ whether they loose or not. Such a viewing of politics brings nothing but poverty, unemployment, and no public services to governing party supporters.

I am often asked why I would potentially risk my reputation to have accepted becoming an independent chairperson of the negotiations to create South Africa’s first pre-electoral coalition of opposition parties in its modern history, called the multiparty charter (MPC). Firstly, I have lead negotiations, whether at country, including the eSwatini negotiations between the governing party and opposition parties ahead of the 2014 elections, to facilitating the healing process between the Shibanye-Stillwater Mine and the community following the 2012 Marikana massacre.

Nevertheless, it is critical – for civil society, citizens, and academia, to help strengthen the quality of opposition parties. It is important that academics can provide advice to parties, which are acting within the ambit of the Constitution, across the political spectrum – in order to prevent a football club supporting culture for political parties, where help for one party is seen is supporting that party and opposing other parties. It is also critical that a culture is fostered that there are South African national interests, which are not specific to one party, these include having a mature, relevant, and credible opposition parties.

Opposition parties provide alternative visions, policies, and leaders to that of the governing party. They scrutinise government decisions, policies, and actions – and play oversight over the executive and the public administration. They defend the interests of the voters – not only their constituencies, but all the country’s voters.

Opposition parties’ ability to show the electorate they are credible alternative governments are crucial to the credibility of the democratic system. A democratic system is greatly undermined if the opposition does not offer any credible alternatives to the governing party, is invisible in the public debate or does not have a public profile beyond during elections.

Without clear alternatives offered by opposition parties a country is unable to have constructive debates on policy options, the direction of the country and the future. In fact, the strength, effectiveness, and quality of a democracy is largely also dependent on the efficiency, relevance, and ability of the opposition parties to credibly show they are ready to govern. This means the strength of the opposition in a country play a key role in the quality of democracy, effectiveness of the state and the levels of corruption.

For democracy to consolidate, for public services to be delivered it is requisite that voters do not vote for parties and leaders as if they are football teams. That voters vote for parties different to their identity, colour, racial solidarity, ideology, emotions, past or ‘struggle’ credentials, but based rationally on the fact that parties will govern competently, bring law and order and clean government. For another, in consolidated or mature democracies, voters vote against their own parties – if these do not delivery, and vote for other parties they may not agree with, to hold their ‘own’ parties accountable, and force them to deliver.

Sadly, in South Africa people still vote for parties based as if they are football teams. Or they vote for parties based on race solidarity or identity - the fact that the party and leaders share their colour, race, ideology, past or ‘struggle’ credentials. Some voters also continue to vote for parties and leaders based on their credentials during the liberation struggle, not on current performance. Yet others vote for parties and leaders based on the fact that the parties and their leaders are “black”, come from the same village or community than them – identity or group based or racial-solidarity voting.

If this continues, parties and leaders elected in such a way will continue to be unaccountable, corrupt, and incompetent – state failure, joblessness, underdevelopment, and lawlessness will continue, because these leaders and parties have no incentives to deliver these, since voters will continue to vote for them, based on the past, same colour or racial solidarity, not matter what they deliver.

Associate Profess William Gumede is Founder and Executive Chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation; and Independent Chairperson of the negotiations to put together a multiparty coalition of opposition parties, now called the Multiparty Charter (MPC), to contest the 29 May 2024 elections; and Co-Chaired the recent South African Local Government Association dialogue to come up with a coalition legal framework and regulations for all spheres of government.

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