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Factions, coalitions and in-fighting in SA politics

Mphuthumi Ntabeni looks at the politics of factions, coalition and party in-fighting and what this means for the South African voter.

I often maintain that the ANC is the only political party within which internal democracy is rigorous. With the rise of the stakes towards controlling the national coffers it is crucial who gets power, and, sometimes, a fatal occupational hazard to maintain it. Other political parties, to avoid the violence of uncontrolled and rigorous jousting for positions of power, tend to go to elective congresses with negotiated lists of leaders. The problem is that, often, the process of negotiations is not open, and is done based on hidden reasons that most of the time involves secret exchange of material gains. This is what Pope Francis, addressing Italy’s anti-mafia parliamentary commission, referred to as politics of partisan interests that “banalises evil” by not listening to the conscience. It becomes susceptible to influences of corruption that allow mafia tendencies to flourish. Here the conferences are just platforms to rubber stamp already negotiated deals by the elites that are normally in somebody’s purchase.

There are numerous reasons that the ANC is unable to negotiate its leadership deals – and not all of them are virtuous. The first is that the party is too big, and so the queue of patrimony within the factions is too long. Thus, it is not able to accommodate the opposite faction. And so contestation becomes a zero-sum game where the winners take all, and the losers bite the ground. The factional slates within the ANC are not secret, but mostly negotiated at branch level. In fact they’re mostly why there are factions instead of balanced lists that include the cream of leadership regardless of the presidential candidate.

The second reason goes into the heart of the so called “Broad Church” status of the party. Several policy views, sometimes even opposing ones, are held by different people, which foment into factional thinking when these views are irreconcilable. For instance, the CR17 (Cyril Ramaphosa) faction is canvassing on the ticket of the National Developmental Plan (NDP). Meaning, though they want to tweak things a little for the economy to work for more people in the country, they want the status quo to remain, or at least not to drastically change overnight. Naturally, they have the support of investors, big business and the so called white monopoly capital.

The NDZ17 (Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma) faction is canvassing on the populist ticket of the so called Radical Economic Transformation (RET). Though no clear definition of RET exists anywhere, even within the faction members that support it, the accepted rhetoric is that the economy must be in the hands of the majority, and land must be given back to the dispossessed who are landless and have no basic tools to actively participate within the economic activity of the country. As usual with populist rhetoric, the detail and practical side of it has been relegated to the devil.

More tragic still is that whichever faction wins the chances of it having a meaningful impact on the ordinary lives of the majority of South Africans are slim. More indabas will be held to paddle new policies, or recycle new ways of saying old failed things. In the next five years, if the reigning faction does not bungle things up too much, we shall be told that they’re consolidating the implementation of the plans and so on. Then in the middle of the second term of its reign the ruling faction will become lame ducks. People, with false courage, will emerge, ready to slaughter the toothless lions. As the African proverb goes, many knives will emerge to skin the fallen elephant – meaning we will be back into the political cycle we currently occupying, where, in Gramsci’s language, a myriad of morbid symptoms emerge because the old is dying and the new cannot be born.

What are the solutions I hear you ask? The leader of the UDM, Bantu Holomisa, is at the forefront of painting our political future as being rosy tinted by coalition politics. This, of course, requires an assumption that the ruling party will fail to gain a majority vote in some provinces, and or even at national level. Putting aside the new complications that’ll emerge with these coalition governments, the first question to ask is whether the opposition parties themselves have any better vision of governance than the ANC? There’s hardly anything, policy wise, that distinguishes the major opposition parties from the ANC. You’ll find the DA just puts more emphasis on sound economic management, meaning it believes in classical economics and laissez faire market system. Whereas the EFF puts emphasis on land issues and transformation. Basically, they’re like the contending factions of the ANC outside the premises. I predict, because the stakes would be much higher than the current metro municipalities coalition administrations, the complication would be higher if not necessarily untenable.

Coalition governments, where they work, are usually of bread and butter issue.  In most European countries they are issue based and done according to close policy affiliation. We don’t really have that luxury here where the two major opposition parties are polar opposites of each other. This is probably why the UDM, though small, often acts a mediatory role, because it has the most median policies in the country, close to authentic social democracy and democratic capitalisation as seen in most Scandinavian countries.

Politics of coalition also have an added advantage whereby political parties act as each other’s guard dogs, which in the end benefits the citizens. They also, when done right, promote transparency and accountability within governments. They compel back  into the political system what Pope Fracis term “an eminent form of charity”, which is the true vocation of politics St Thomas, expanding the Aristotlean concept talked about. It stands to reason that if South Africans know what is good for them they need to start voting for smaller parties in order to force bigger ones into acquiring humility and accountability. It is the only reasonable way that will deliver us from this mess, and revive our political system.

As for the political infighting, no party has monopoly on it. Its just that others do a better job in containing it within its political structures. But it is difficult to do that when you are a party in governance, as the DA is learning the hard way within the Cape Town municipality and Western Cape province. Personally, I do not mind too much the creative chaos of democracy, its messiness, when it does not break into open physical violence. I despise more the secret deals done in boardrooms, smoky bars, or golf courses that actively replaces the real energy and open participation of democratic process. I despise the selfish individualism of elitism, because they hollow out the democratic processes for the benefit of the few who know how to manipulate and milk the system. As communitarian, this is part of the reason I am opposed to relativistic smorgasbord and exaggerated individualism of liberalism, with all the conceit of sophisticated ignorance that it entails. With G.K. Chesterton I believe God, in his invincible wisdom, made collective benefits to coincide with the universal good. SA.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.