SO IT looks as though we may have two new political parties participating in next year’s general election. Expelled African National Congress Youth League leader Julius Malema has announced that he wants to establish a patently racist political "platform", while on Saturday Mamphela Ramphele, one of the founders of the Black Consciousness movement in the 1960s, will launch her Agang SA as a formal party committed to building what she calls "a South African consciousness" of national unity.
The two could hardly be further apart in their vision of the future, reflecting the wide disagreement that afflicts our body politic.
In his press statement, Malema made a pitch to what he called "economic freedom fighters" to discuss a set of principles he has drafted as the possible basis for a new party. Those principles include the expropriation of land without compensation; the nationalisation of mines, banks and other strategic sectors of the economy; large-scale industrialisation to create millions of jobs for Africans; and the building of the "African economy" coupled with "a move from reconciliation to justice".
Aside from the fact that such a programme would lead to economic catastrophe and mass unemployment, the final objective sounds suspiciously like a call for retributive justice against the previously advantaged race group. The man thinks in racial vengeance.
I once asked Malema at a press function whether he regarded Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as his role model. No, he replied, he was modelling himself on Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. But that was in the days when he was still prepared to kill for Jacob Zuma. Today I would suggest he is modelling himself more on Idi Amin.
I must confess, however, that I have doubts about Malema’s ability to implement his party plans. It is one thing to grab a headline by trumpeting bold intentions and quite another to carry them out — a publicity trick Malema has played before.
One needs money, lots of it, to launch a political party and right now Malema is being asset-stripped by the South African Revenue Service. Moreover, he is facing fraud charges and may well be headed for jail.
No, Malema’s statement of intent sounds more like a cry of rage from a petulant child who has had his toys taken away from him. So he is giving vent to his anger and frustration — and to his innate racism.
Ramphele’s party plans are an altogether different proposition. Most media analysts have dismissed her prospects because of her silence since first announcing her party "platform" four months ago, but I think that while she may be a bit unconventional, she may well play a significant role.
Until recently, Ramphele’s role has been that of a struggle elder, commenting on national affairs in her capacity as a public intellectual. But now she has become dismayed at what she sees as a betrayal of the principles for which that struggle was waged, and at the steady eroding of the constitution that embodies those principles, so she has decided to step down from that perch and become actively involved.
That, she believes, is what elders should do when they see their country in crisis. She is angry at the corruption, mismanagement, greed and patronage politics she sees all around her. "There isn’t enough outrage out there," she says. "It must be mobilised."
She has spent the past four months canvassing opinions and testing grass-roots sentiment, mainly in rural areas and among women, and has concluded that there is indeed a constituency of the disillusioned ready to be mobilised.
Will she succeed? She brims with confidence, but my long experience of watching political shifts has taught me that they move with painful slowness. Nevertheless, I believe she will make a meaningful difference.
From my conversations with Ramphele, it is clear she has decided, wisely in my opinion, to conduct a targeted campaign focused on just four sectors — the economy, education, health, and safety and security. Those cover the critical areas of government failure and, with her background as a medical doctor, educationist and World Bank director, Ramphele is well qualified to craft effective policies to deal with them.
One of the criticisms of Ramphele is that she would have done better to form a political alliance with Helen Zille’s Democratic Alliance (DA), and that by campaigning separately, the two parties will split the opposition vote to the ruling African National Congress’s (ANC’s) advantage.
It may be true that a single, united opposition front would have had more of an effect on the public mind, but the argument about splitting the opposition vote doesn’t hold water.
Ironically, it would do so if we had the constituency system both the DA and Agang SA want, but not with the proportional representation system we have and which both parties want to reform.
As sometimes happened in the old South Africa, which had a constituency system, candidates from two opposition parties could split what together would have been a majority opposition vote, thereby allowing a National Party candidate to slip in with the biggest vote of the three.
But under today’s system, it is the total proportion of votes each party gets nationally that determines the number of elected members it gets.
How those percentages will shift in next year’s election, now only 10 months away, will soon become the subject of intense speculation and opinion-poll testing.
It is here that Agang SA’s growth potential will come into the picture, together with whatever may be left of the Congress of the People, the Inkatha Freedom Party and Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement.
The DA is obviously the main growth party on the opposition side and will be the central pillar of any future opposition alliance. Its growth has been steady, from 12.37% of the vote in 2004, to 16.3% in the local government elections of 2006, to 16.66% in 2009 and 23.9% in 2011.
The ANC, meanwhile, has slipped from its easy two-thirds majorities in the early elections to 65.9% in the 2009 national election and 62% in 2011.
The joint aim of the opposition must be to bring down the ANC’s percentage to somewhere in the 50s to establish a real democratic balance, rather than the single-dominant-party system that we have had since the advent of the new South Africa. That will require the DA to reach about 25% next year, so, if Agang SA can add anywhere between 5% and 10% (Ramphele expects more), the immediate goal becomes attainable with the addition of the other minor parties.
That would set up the 2019 election as the first at which the ANC could realistically be challenged and possibly defeated at the polls, establishing the new South Africa as a mature democracy able to experience periodic regime changes through the ballot box.
Such a situation is the only real guarantee a country can have of efficient government and proper accountability to its people.
More than 125 years ago, the first Lord Acton warned his fellow citizens that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely". What the citizens of the new South Africa should note is that too long in office without a serious electoral challenge is precisely that — absolute power. It needs to be trimmed.
• Sparks is former editor of the Rand Daily Mail.