Mmusi Maimane, former leader of the official opposition, is enthusiastic about the recent ruling by the Constitutional Court that it is unconstitutional to stipulate that citizens may be elected to Parliament and provincial legislatures ‘only through their membership of political parties’.

Various political commentators are also excited that Parliament has been ordered by the court to amend the Electoral Act of 1998 to enable candidates to run independent of political parties. The court said that the right of freedom of association included the right not to associate.     

‘With a new electoral system,’ says Mr Maimane, ‘accountability will lie not with parties but with the people.’ Others argue that political governance is about to be ‘transformed’ and that the ‘iron grip’ of the African National Congress (ANC) is about to be relaxed. Unfortunately, as a former opposition chief whip, Douglas Gibson, pointed out on Politicsweb, this is all largely ‘nonsense’.

That a single member of Parliament (MP) can be spectacularly successful is exemplified by Helen Suzman’s thirteen years alone in Parliament between 1961 and 1974. But her career actually proves the vital importance of political parties to parliamentary politics.

She crossed the floor in 1959 not on her own, but with eleven other United Party MPs. Had they not formed the new Progressive Party (Progs), they are unlikely to have attracted the financial backing of Harry Oppenheimer. Had Mrs Suzman run on her own as a single independent in the 1961 general election rather than as one of 26 Prog candidates across the country, she would almost certainly have lost her Houghton seat instead of scraping home by 564 votes. That would probably have been the end of her political career.

Lonely

Alone in Parliament when all the other Progs were defeated in that election, she quickly discovered just how lonely it could be. An unofficial weekly caucus she held with some of her defeated colleagues did not last as they had to find other jobs. She could not leave the chamber during important debates because there was nobody to take her place. There was no cross-party fraternisation so she dined or lunched alone whenever she did not have outside guests.

And, as she wrote in her memoirs, ‘I especially missed the camaraderie of drinking with my chums in the members’ pub after the House adjourned, and all those lively post-mortems on the day’s events.’

Mrs Suzman’s mastery of a dozen or more different portfolios was nothing short of heroic. Alone in a hostile Parliament, her rights fortunately protected by a friendly and non-partisan Speaker, she nevertheless had a party outside it behind her, with a national presence and embodying the hope that other liberals would soon join her. This did not happen until six more were elected in 1974. By then, however, she had had enough and declared that she would rather quit than face another five years by herself.  

Decadence

The ANC’s performance has made vast numbers of people cynical about political parties. But the decadence of that party (and others here and elsewhere) does not argue for an end to the party system.  

All over the world, political parties have been established in democratic states with different constitutions and different types of relationship between the legislative and executive branches of government. Parties come into existence not by decree but because they are a logical outcome of parliamentary politics. 

Political parties can destroy democracy. They have done so in various countries, and some would no doubt still like to do so. They are nevertheless essential to making democracy work. They are also more effective than independent MPs would be in calling government to account.

This last point is currently being powerfully demonstrated by the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), during the health and economic crises facing this country. DA ‘shadow ministers’, as well as representatives in provincial legislatures, have been vigorously challenging ministers and provincial executives every day on a range of issues that cover almost every ministerial portfolio. The Freedom Front Plus has been part of this effort, though on a smaller scale.

A need for political parties

‘Independent’ MPs, however diligent, would never be able to do the job. They would not have the numbers to participate in all important debates. Nor would they have the numbers to attend the numerous portfolio and other committee meetings, where much of the work of national and provincial legislatures is done. Even if South Africa’s system of proportional representation were to be supplemented by a constituency system, and the powers of party bosses weakened, there would still be a need for political parties.

Government in the twentieth century has extended its reach to an extent that would have horrified Victorians. Calling ministers and officials to account requires round-the-clock vigilance. It also necessitates vast resources, including the communications media, business funding, non-governmental organizations in civil society, and political parties.                    

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4 COMMENTS

  1. No it’s not nonsense of any kind. what is also not nonsense is that the current political parties do not have the interest of the citizens as their foremost priority.
    They only seek the opportunity of self interest and a “job” paid for by the citizen. The business funding of parties is what is a problem. It is what corrupts parties. Maybe its time for that “business funding” to go into a pot and be shared amongst the independents or parties equally?
    A group of independents could help to swing decisions and even be the start of a new party or parties.
    It is also time to implement a recall system. That is to enable the voters to recall appointed ministers who act in their own interest and toe “party” line and do not act in interest of the citizen. A sort of “do no harm” clause for politicians who don’t give damn about the citizens rights.
    Maybe the “business funding” should to go into a pot and be used to take the ruling party to court or maybe that the ruling party should be forced to fund and pay for the costs of the legal action taken against them for the failure to create laws that fail constitutional muster?
    One side of the political system that needs no funding is the corrupt communications media. Truth telling is no longer the objective.

  2. What utter nonsense, though its to be expected. The DA will surely be in the firing line when the changes are made. I am hugely excited by this development, and no doubt so are the many millions of voters who cannot bear to vote for any of the hapless bunch of rent seekers currently masquerading as political parties. The political landscape is changing, and the incumbents had better wake and smell the coffee or be left picking up crumbs.

  3. A line voice in the wilderness? Helen? Really?

    That old bag and others like her, are the reason why South Africa is in the mess it is.

    One man one vote was the death shot, and all these politicians are merely the carrion birds feasting on the carcass.

    Swine. Each and every one. Disgusting filthy self serving swine.

  4. Apart from the practicalities enumerated by JKB, can someone explain why they think individuals, no matter how august and well known will have more success than, say, Dr Ramphele or Hlaudi Motsoeneng. There are currently six parties with 2 MPs and two with 1 MP in Parliament; why do the fantasists imagine that independents will do a better job than these 16 individuals. (One of them is Patricia de Lille of Good, rewarded with a ministerial post for disrupting the DA in WC).

    How many of these “independents” can anyone name?
    Has there been any research in the difference between “list” (indirectly elected) and “ward” (directly elected) councillors? Anecdotal evidence is that there is none.

    Parliament allocates speaking time proportional to party (and is unlikely to change this); “backbenchers” sacrifice their time for the leadership. How much impact can an individual make with one four hundredth of the time available for a debate? Part of Helen Suzman’s success, along with her personality and integrity, was having a party organisation behind her to do research, fund-raising and other support.

    The main argument in favour of independents is the “all politicians and party bosses are corrupt” line. Consider for a moment who is going to stand as an independent — certainly not the people who should: successful businesspeople, professionals, academics and the like, they will have no taste for the hustings and not want to take a break in their careers. The same hustlers and carpetbaggers we see at present, would be “careerists” who cannot make it via one of the big three parties with a sprinkling of “save the world”, one-issue (if any) egoists. (Mmusi & Hermann?)

    Most voters are concerned about the economy and the direction the country is going. Political parties spell out their vision and plans in order to get elected. Doing so takes an enormous amount of organisation and funding (you cannot rely upon the media to do your job for you especially if there are numerous parties and individuals); it also takes an enormous amount of organisation on election day.

    Let us not forget that amongst main mover Maimane’s failings — according to the post elections post-mortem research by the panel he appointed — were poor organisational management and changing his party’s mandate.

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