The long and winding road to an effective opposition pact


The long and winding road to an effective opposition pact

The DA, ActionSA, IFP, FF+ and other opposition parties' intended ‘national convention' next month to form a pact that will challenge the ANC in next year's election is actually not even talks about talks, it's talks about talks about talks. But it is a tentative first step towards an outcome that has the potential to radically change South Africa's political landscape — provided the egos can be controlled, writes MAX DU PREEZ. And where's Rise Mzansi?


Oh Lord it's hard to be humble
when you're perfect in every way.
I can't wait to look in the mirror
cause I get better looking each day.
To know me is to love me
I must be a hell of a man.

– Mac Davis

It will require much more than a cooperation agreement between the opposition parties involved in the convention to offer voters a viable alternative to the ANC.

The initiative should capture the imagination of South Africans who have voted for the ANC (and EFF) so far or have abstained, and make them believe that it is truly a new beginning, a reboot that will genuinely lead to the kind of country we dreamed about in 1994.

It will have to be more than just a coalition that, in the words of DA leader John Steenhuisen, opposes the “doomsday coalition" of the ANC and EFF.

Here's a tricky question: let's say the pact works but only manages to get about 45% of the vote, and the ANC gets the same. Wouldn't that force the ANC to form a governing coalition with the EFF if other potential partners, such as the IFP, are no longer available?

According to current indications and previous election results, the parties taking part in the convention on August 16 represent only about 30% of voters, mostly from the white, coloured and Indian minority groups, as well as the Zulu-speaking electorate in KwaZulu-Natal.

The DA is by far the strongest party at the convention, probably with just over 20% national support. Steenhuisen's idea of a “moonshot pact", which he announced at the party's federal congress in April, lies at the heart of the gathering.

The ANC has already labelled the attempt at an election coalition as the work of forces opposed to transformation, and it is an accusation the party will further exploit in the election campaign.

The predominantly white leadership of two of the parties, the DA and the Freedom Front Plus, especially provides fertile ground for such a campaign.

Two other tiny parties, Neil de Beer's United Independent Movement (UIM) and Christopher Claassen's Spectrum National Party, will also be part of the convention. The African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) and Mmusi Maimane's Build One South Africa (Bosa) will send observers.

Good, Cope, Bantu Holomisa's United Democratic Movement and Gayton McKenzie's Patriotic Alliance will not attend, and obviously neither will the EFF, ATM or al Jamah-ah. The National Freedom Party's position was still unclear yesterday, but it is in coalition with the ANC in several local authorities.

The most significant absentee is the one party that, in my opinion, stands the best chance of swaying typical ANC supporters in reasonable numbers: Songezo Zibi's Rise Mzansi.

This is a new movement that has not yet participated in elections, and its popular support is difficult to determine.

But Zibi and his fellow leaders have a more subtle strategy than just shouting at the ANC and EFF, and they are engaged in intense discussions and processes that could make them a key player by early next year.

The irony is that while the DA is the strongest party in opposition, the more the new pact smells like the DA, the less attractive it will be to voters who have not voted against the ANC so far.

A major test for leaders such as Steenhuisen and Helen Zille will be whether they are willing to step back and let the sun shine on other leaders. On its own, the DA's chances of significantly growing its support are extremely slim.

If the idea of a pact between opposition parties is to work at least by early next year — the election is likely to take place in August — the group will surely need a leader; voters will want to know in advance who the new president will be if the coalition wins the election.

Even the staunchest white liberal in the DA should realise that this leader cannot be Steenhuisen or Zille.

Herman Mashaba surely thinks he is the right man, but few outside his party will agree. And the IVP's Velenkosini Hlabisa doesn't exactly exude charisma.

Is Zibi perhaps the best candidate? 

Zibi is reluctant to negotiate with other opposition parties but he will have no other choice but to eventually sit down with the pact group. If they reach a workable, viable pre-election agreement, it would be madness for Rise Mzansi to stand against them.

Rise Mzansi's strategy seems to be to wait for the power struggles and ego clashes, especially between the DA and ActionSA, to settle before seeking closer ties. It might be a good idea to wait and see how things unfold before making a move; wait until the fox terriers have stopped yapping. 

Politicians are generally supreme egotists, and political parties' primary instinct is to grow in support and prestige. This will be one of the most challenging issues during the negotiations: to what extent will parties in an election coalition have to compromise their own identity? For example, will the DA and ActionSA compete against each other during the campaign?

Steenhuisen said this week that the convention is designed “to negotiate many key elements of a post-2024 government upfront so that we don't have to rush to meet the two-week deadline after the election".

He added: “If all goes well, the pact will emerge from the convention with clearly defined values and principles, a common minimum programme of action, and a formula that will show South Africa what a pact cabinet could look like."

If these plans work out and capture voters' imagination, parties such as Good, the UDM, the Patriotic Alliance and others (there are more than 1,500 registered political parties) may also want to be part of it to survive. (It doesn't seem like Cope is a viable party any more.)

Steenhuisen, Mashaba and company might be a bit hasty. The road to August 2024 is long and arduous, as full of potholes as the roads in the Free State.

Much has been said (including by myself in recent years) about the need to establish a broad national movement in the style of the United Democratic Front of the 1980s to bring about fundamental change and start a new beginning for South Africa next year: churches, community organisations, trade unions, cultural, business and other interest groups in cities, towns and traditional areas.

Holomisa also emphasised this yesterday in an interview with the Financial Mail, saying the moonshot coalition cannot defeat the ANC on its own: “The effort requires the participation of churches, traditional leaders, civil society and unions."

I hear that such an initiative is making good progress, although many, especially business people, are still hesitant to openly break ties with the ANC.

It is crucial that a major change in South Africa next year is rooted in different communities to ensure stability.

There is certainly potential for significant instability in the civil service, the armed forces and elsewhere if the ANC is suddenly ousted from government.

There may not be much sense in such a national movement if it does not also manifest in votes against the ANC/EFF. The status quo would simply continue.

The relationship between such a movement and the opposition pact will be a delicate matter to address.

What won't be difficult is for the new opposition coalition to secure funding. Businessmen and others with very deep pockets are ready to contribute, but then it must involve more than just the few parties attending next month's convention.

♦ VWB ♦

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