Cetshwayo Mabhena Correspondent
ONCE in Africa there was a political proposal that for the nation to survive in unity the tribe must die. We here propose the death of the political party in Africa and we must begin by admitting that we are not the first ones to propose the death of the political parties in the Global South. In a way, the Third Way in Zimbabwe, presumably to be led by some political thinkers has this idea as its mantra.
This article is motivated by the recent and ever intensifying debate predominantly in South Africa, but also elsewhere in the United States of America on whether Members of Parliament from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) must vote along party lines even if they would have voted otherwise, a phenomenon loosely termed “voting with your conscience”.
The practise of political parties voting along party lines is so entrenched, hence, the presence of the Chief Whip as a key office bearer in parliament. This, in a strong way abolishes the democratic vote from the conscience.
The political party can be traced to 1600 ancient Rome when politics was organised along two different interests, the Patricians representing noble families and the Plebeians, who represented the rich and the middle class. It is important to note that right from their formation, political parties served the interests of the influential (the rich, educated, middle class etc.) and not the poor or the nation. Based on this, we can, therefore, argue that political parties, if captured, were captured right from their inception since they were formed to serve the interests of society’s influential and well to do.
Here in Africa, most of the ruling political parties of today were born out of the various liberatory movements, which then coalesced into ruling political parties. These parties were led by black African radicals most of whom had drank deep in terms of colonial and European education, as radical as they were they had become black white men and women that had their nose up as competent knowers and thinkers.
With time, liberation based political parties such as zanu-pf in Zimbabwe, the ANC in South Africa and Swapo in Namibia started facing competition from political parties formed after the end of apartheid and colonialism.
These include the Democratic Alliance (DA) in South Africa, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Zimbabwe and the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP) in Namibia. Liberation movements and parties have been naturally suspicious of these newcomers that are accused of sell-out opportunism and historical inexperience.
Political parties serve six main functions: political opinion-making; selection and deployment of office bearers, loosely termed cadre deployment in South Africa; political socialisation and participation by linking citizens with the political system, also known as interest aggregation and articulation; exercising political power and finally legitimating the political system.
We ask the following questions as a way of determining the continued relevance of political parties as key stakeholders in politics. Are political parties still leading the process of political opinion-making, is cadre deployment still an acceptable norm? Can political socialisation and participation occur without political parties?
Are political parties still exercising political power or are now abusing it and thereby rendering the political system toxic? Are political parties still legitimising our political systems or they are now delegitimising them? These are stubborn questions that African political scientists and politicians should be asking and answering.
Of course, there are no easy answers, but what is apparent from posing the above questions is that political parties are no longer the leading political opinion makers, cadre deployment has long lost credibility as it has evolved to become a tool for factionalism, kleptocracy and plutocracy — and corruption at a mega scale. We can also argue that with the advent of social media, political socialisation and participation is now capable of happening outside the confines of the political party as an institution.
Overall, political parties are losing not only legitimacy, but also relevance and connection with the people as they increasingly turn on one another and away from the people. A significant amount of policy aggregation is happening outside political parties and is mainly community driven.Examples include the Vuwani/Malamulele municipal demarcation, the housing protests in Gauteng’s Ennerdale, Riverlea, Eldorado Park and Finetown in South Africa where we are presently researching and teaching.
At a theoretical level, political parties’ overall configuration is termed the political system of which there are four main ones. These are the single party systems as in China, Cuba and North Korea, the Dominant party systems as in South Africa, Russia and Japan, the two party system as in the United States and the multi-party system as in most of Europe. Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia present a propitious model for this discussion, a no party system. We argue here that over time, political parties, both ruling and opposing have lost legitimacy and relevance for the reasons we will outline below.
The irrelevance of the party
Political parties focus more on their major stakeholders and themselves and not on the people. The party line is not necessarily the national line. They usually have an interest in the people only around election time or when it allows them to get the better of their political opponents. Given a choice between the people and the party, party-based politicians choose the party.
During the presidency of Jacob Zuma, on several occasions, the ANC was faced with the choice of either saving the ANC or saving South Africa. Suffice to mention that the ANC as thus far consistently preferred to save their party than their country. Unfortunately at this moment, the two are mutually exclusive; it’s either the party or the country.
The issue of political party funding also has a bearing on this debate. Political parties, through being funded and by having other relationships with business, tend to be more allegiant to the rich and influential, just as it was in the 1600s.
The poor are powerless, and their only weapon is the vote, which they get to exercise once in four or five years. Yet the rich have the resources and power to influence the parties (both ruling and opposition) and the Government. This leads to policies that favour the rich, business and the influential minority, at times at the direct expense of the poor majority. Hence we argue that in order for the poor, who are the majority, to live the political party must die thereby granting the poor equal access to the state and state resources in the absence of the middleman called the political party.
Political parties have evolved to become a hindrance to genuine national interests as political parties aim to preserve themselves especially once in office. More capable candidates are not selected because they belong to the “wrong” political parties or even the wrong factions.
Patronage politics which is the bloodline of party-based politics is not an efficient system of allocating resources in a government. It ignores the most capable and deserving cases in favour of the most favoured.
The popular politicians that have money to brand and sell themselves in the political market are not always the hard working performers and deliverers but political entrepreneurs. Political parties are now a huge industry with high costs for the tax payers, money which can be used elsewhere. The funding of political parties is problematic and presents a catch 22 situation, if they are funded by the public and business, they run the risk of being captured and if they are funded by the state, they run the risk of draining the fiscus. Hence our argument that we need to rethink the relevance of political parties and begin to think of alternatives. It is also important to note that in Africa political parties have frequently been reduced to tribal gangs that are organised on blood and ancestral lines, fanning tribalism and political violence in the troubled continent.
Any alternative to the party?
One alternative is to have a political system with no political parties, but individual members of parliament, councillors, etcetera, elected from and directly by the constituencies. This will also apply to the president, who then becomes the president of the country and not simultaneously be the leader of a party. Leading both the party and the country has proved to be problematic as more often than not, some presidents choose their parties over their countries.
This is the model that some Zimbabweans are mediating over and it is one which deserves to be tested. The harm that political parties pose to national unity cannot be underestimated. By appealing to certain constituencies and not the others, parties tend to divide nations along races, class, ethnicities, religions, age groups and many other lines.
With these divisions, political intolerance and violence both intra and inter-political parties becomes inevitable as competition for votes increases. Whether it is the Inkatha Freedom Party fighting the National Freedom Party or zanu-pf fighting the MDC, or ANC factions fighting each other in KZN, the bottom line is that the loss of lives, property and hope is evident and must stop.
While there is no empirical evidence linking the political party system to the increase in voter apathy, we are persuaded to suggest that the belligerent nature of political party based politics in Africa has made politics very toxic and an unattractive vocation to those who would otherwise hold public office and serve their countries with dedication and distinction.
We close by noting that the political party as an institution has done remarkable things for our political lives since its inception around the 1600s. Humanity has evolved to a point where we need a new way of conducting our politics and the middleman otherwise known as the political party must now be dispensed. After all the political party is a colonial creature in Africa.
- Mabhena and Benyera write from South Africa: [email protected]