WHEREVER in the world former Sasol and Anglo American CEOs Pieter Cox and Tony Trahar are these days, last week’s speech by erstwhile president Thabo Mbeki must have caused them to smile at the irony of it all.
In 2003, both men were at the receiving end of Mbeki’s invective when they said, respectively, that black economic empowerment was a "risk factor" and that the risk factor for South Africa was "starting to diminish, although I am not saying it has gone".
Mbeki accused Sasol of "bad-mouthing South Africa" and suggested that Trahar’s stance amounted to Anglo suggesting that "democratic South Africa presents the business world … with a higher political risk than apartheid South Africa".
What a difference nine years and loss of office makes. In his African National Congress (ANC) centenary lecture last week, Mbeki joined the doomsday chorus in far more direct and stark terms than these corporate titans ever did. He spoke of South Africa being afloat on a sea of troubles, characterised by "a dangerous and unacceptable situation of directionless and unguided national drift".
Mbeki is hardly alone as a latter-day canary-in-the-coal-mine warning of the noxious gases that threaten to engulf the country. The Economist, which recently upgraded Africa from "hopeless" to "hopeful", decided, also last week and after two sovereign credit downgrades, that South Africa was sliding downward toward "sad country" status. Embedded in the article is a central truth: South Africa — at the most recent general election, the spread between the governing party and the official opposition was more than 40 points — is "a de facto one-party state".
I recently noted that it is difficult to establish a real and competitive democracy (and the first adjective is conditioned by the second) on the back of such a huge deficit, especially since our much admired constitution is noticeably weak in its checks and curbs on a super-majority government. Thus the motivating spirit and finer detail of the constitution can be ignored and bypassed by the government for the simplest of reasons: because they can be.
In this context, the recent call by Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille for a realigned and larger opposition is both politically and constitutionally necessary. But as someone who still bears the scars from the last large-scale opposition merger a decade ago, I can attest that it will not be easy.
The only party with which the DA appears to be engaged in serious discussion toward this end is the much diminished Congress of the People, which, because of the 2009 election results and despite its self-destructiveness since then, remains the second-largest opposition force in Parliament, led by Mosiuoa Lekota.
There is deep irony at play here too. Mbeki decided the destruction of the DA was a political priority, he appointed as his hit man the national chairman of the ANC — Lekota. Thus it was that Lekota, with the carrot of floor-crossing and the promise of the Western Cape premiership, tempted Marthinus van Schalkwyk to lead his New National Party rump out of the DA and into the fatal embrace of the ANC.
Four years later, when parliamentary floor-crossing, which probably did more injury to democratic deepening than many other constitutional predations before or since, was at its height, the same Lekota set about personally luring DA members across the parliamentary aisle. In one case, he even offered DA MP Rafeek Shah a "deputy ministry". When I exposed the offer, which Shah informed me of and commendably declined, Lekota telephoned me to tell me "it was only a joke". Presumably, these days Lekota is more seriously engaged in helping to broaden an opposition he once so assiduously attempted to destroy.
From the’s DA perspective, demographics represents political destiny. In last year’s municipal elections, the party’s improved performance in reaching about 24% of the vote was hailed as scaling new electoral heights and proof that the party had, at last, established a small base among black voters. Actually, only the latter but crucially important fact was new. In 2000, shortly after the formation of the DA, the party notched up more than 23% of the national municipal vote. The reason for the standstill in its total over the past decade has not been because of a failure to obtain black votes but because of the rapid decline, demographically, in its core minority — especially its white — base.
Increasing its size remains the vital and unfinished task for opposition leadership. This is a proposition about numbers. But there is another equally compelling dilemma: how to do so and retain ideological and policy coherence and not reduce the clear blue water that separates, or should divide, the opposition and the government.
On squaring this circle, not just the fortunes of the opposition but the constitutional good health of the country depends.
• Follow Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA.
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