It is expected that in modern democracies that embrace free and fair elections, and respect for civil liberties, political parties will induce the system to be responsive. The expectation has stimulated discourse across knowledge domains that the shortfalls of democracy in Eastern Europe and Latin America can be ascribed to the absence or weakness of political parties.
Citizen views of political parties are a long-standing issue, which has taken on added significance in South Africa due to their proliferation.
The 2019 national and provincial elections, for example, were contested by 48 political parties. However, many of these parties do not perform well in elections but continue to participate in politics. In this context, research has shown that many of the parties are highly personalistic and depend on the personal resources of their leaders for party-building, rarely ending up challenging the status quo. The parties’ strengths and weaknesses are also primarily linked to the party leaders’ backgrounds and political experience. It is, therefore, natural to ask what the unique attraction points of Mmusi Maimane’s new party, Build One SA (Bosa), are that will convince South Africans that it can promote and protect their interests where others have failed. Maimane, the former leader of the DA, has made some bold promises, including putting “a job in every home in this country”.
But how sustainable is SA’s democracy when there are so many parties? Will the launch of Bosa strengthen representation and responsiveness in the SA political landscape? To answer these questions, one should not look further than the evolution of opposition politics since 1994.
Post-apartheid South Africa has witnessed the launch of various new political parties around every election. A few of the parties achieved limited success, others have survived, albeit as perennial underachievers, and most fade into political oblivion. Generally, the electoral performance of the newly formed parties over the two decades was dismal. The parties include, among others, the Congress of the People, the Independent Democrats, and GOOD. In comparison, the EFF has performed relatively well since its launch in July 2013.
Few will dispute that opposition parties have played a significant role in not only challenging the dominance of the ANC but also consolidating democracy and reshaping the institutional structure of party representation. A common characteristic of opposition politics is their parochial interests that have stifled co-ordinated attempts to unseat the ANC. There was a time when opposition parties moved towards a genuinely unified force. However, since then, opposition politics can be generalised as being fluid and fragmented, lacking co-ordinated long-term strategies. As a result, sentiments about the opposition are broadly negative.
Insofar as Bosa is concerned, a troubling question will be how this party will deal with the pessimism about opposition parties that has deepened over the past decade. Stimulating greater interest from some citizens who lack trust in opposition politicians’ ability to reshape the nature of democratic politics. But it seems as if Maimane has a plan to arrest the declining opposition party influence. In a world of declining political party influence, Maimane would have devised plans to avoid getting the tag of having launched what an African leader called electorally insignificant “telephone booth parties”. Maimane’s vision for Bosa stemmed from the One South Africa Movement, an organisation he launched after resigning from the DA in 2019.
The plan of Bosa to unite independent candidates under an umbrella organisation to contest the 2024 elections is commendable. The One South Africa Movement did the same in the 2021 local government elections, enabling several independent candidates from community-based associations under this organisation to be elected as councillors in various municipalities across the country. This had sought to bring politics closer to those alienated from mainstream parties, by opening positions on the list to all citizens.
As commendable as Maimane’s plans are, his party will face turbulent waters, depending on how he navigates his own interests and values around the collective. In fact, the demise of opposition politics tended to be linked to political entrepreneurs who sought to manipulate the party for their own benefit.
While it is too early to predict how Bosa will perform in the 2024 elections, harnessing the energy of independent candidates through engaged and substantive internal deliberation could play a significant role in an environment of limited funding and high levels of political intolerance. That way, Maimane would avoid falling into the trap of many newly formed political parties that failed in unifying political parties.
*Professor Setholego Matebesi is an Associate professor and head of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State.