Opposition partnership worth the gamble
Some years back, I was invited to Emperors Palace in Kempton Park to address a business conference. It took prodigious feats of imagination to remember that this glitzy casino had, in its previous life, as the jerry-built and misnamed “World Trade Centre” been the venue for the constitutional negotiations which birthed democratic South Africa.
Outside the gaming areas, a few heroic sepia-tinged photographs of Nelson Mandela and other delegates to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) were dotted. Of course, CODESA collapsed shortly after commencing business in May 1992. After massacres and violence, mass action, and much off-site bargaining and arm-twisting or worse, proceedings recommenced in April 1993. The less grandiose titled “multi-party negotiation forum” had succeeded by November 1993 in fashioning an interim Constitution and the transitional arrangements which bridged the old and new orders.
I was reflecting on the clashing dramas and often endless haggling and multiple visits to the free bar and buffets – generously funded by the unsuspecting taxpayer – interspersed with bouts of goodwill and enmity in which as a delegate to those proceedings more than three decades ago I had been an engaged participant.
Last week, the same venue was chosen as a site for the birth of the multi-party charter and the new opposition collaboration to provide South Africans with the prospect of a more unified opposition and the prospect of a governing alternative to the African National Congress (ANC).
This isn’t the first attempt to rationalise the disunified opposition corner of the country, but certainly the urgency of building a bloc which can compete for power in 2024 has never been more apparent.
A recent report on state collapse here commenced with this bleak description: “The country continues to be hit by socio-economic crises including persistent loadshedding; slow economic growth; high joblessness and a rising cost of living; systemic corruption; violent crime; stubborn inequality; and deepening poverty.”
To this bill of indictment – and core to the cause of state failure – could be added, erratic, inefficient, and biased rule-of-law application; persistence in ruinous policies, from cadre deployment to black economic empowerment; and deep government hostility at home to minorities and the private sector and abroad to the West and its allies.
The grim prospects facing South Africa and imperilling its future should make the opposition’s ability to win next year’s poll about as easy as Lionel Messi scoring a goal. But for reasons of history, race, and legacy, and the chronic dependence of more than twenty million South Africans for monthly government grants, it’s less so.
Still, the best outcome of last week is that, at least for disillusioned voters and crucially the commentating class here, the opposition gets some crucial momentum, it places the ANC on the backfoot, and, provided the next steps of getting more parties to sign up happens, offers new hope.
Beyond the allure of history, the choice of a casino for opposition talks next month is also rich in a range of possibilities: “a massive gamble”; “the house always wins”; “staking it all on black”; “hit the jackpot”; and “go for broke” are just some of the options.
Four of the participating parties have some significant political real estate – the Democratic Alliance, Inkatha Freedom Party, Action SA, and Freedom Front Plus – and three are very obscure. Still, the unified imaging which emerged last week is intended to serve as a spur to others beyond the embrace of the ANC and Economic Freedom Fighters to climb aboard.
An old political hand once told me, early on in my career, that “the first law of politics is to be present”. That makes the decision, to date anyway, of start-up party Rise Mzansi not to attend the talks a curious one. Songezo Zibi’s new movement has apparently attracted significant funding and some smart advisors. But to the wider public, it remains an unknown entity with a largely unknown bench of leaders. And though it might tick some imaginative boxes, to suggest, as its leader does, that the movement is neither anti-ANC nor pro-opposition but in favour of a new politics for the country can be simultaneously over sophisticated and quite naïve. South Africa isn’t France awaiting its Emmanuel Macron moment, not that he is much of a role model these days.
The outcomes of the August summit might indeed be modest or inconclusive. A set of common values and principles, a joint plan of action, and some agreed priorities for a new coalition government or even a joint presidential candidate – that should be quite a bunfight given some of the egos around the table – are some of the early steps.
However, it will be about the appearance of co-operation and offering the disillusioned opposition voter, especially those who have opted out of the political process entirely, the glimpse of an imagined post-ANC future. And its possible attainment. That in itself can create a following wind or political momentum to drive the opposition turnout in 2024 to new heights. And the first steps can pave the road to a consolidated opposition which can genuinely challenge for power. But it requires careful management and deft execution.
Thirty or so years back, when Emperors Palace was still the World Trade Centre and the original CODESA talks had collapsed, I was on a visit to Washington D.C., filled with grave doubt about whether there would be in South Africa a peaceful and successful resumption of the stalled constitutional negotiations. I was introduced to Dr Chester Crocker. His painstaking efforts as US assistant secretary for African affairs between 1981 and 1989 led the diplomacy that produced the treaties signed between Angola, South Africa, and Cuba in 1998 which led to Namibian independence in March 1990, then seen as one of the most difficult strategic challenges in the world.
After I expressed my pessimism to Crocker on the same achievement being likely in South Africa, he counselled, “Get the process right, and process can overcome the most difficult problems.”
He was entirely correct, as the resumed and more realistic talks which commenced months later at Kempton Park proved. Let’s hope that the same care and spirit on both process and outcome accompanies the new talks next month in Kempton Park. For the democratic health and continuity of the country, it’s a gamble worth taking.
- Tony Leon is the founding leader of the Democratic Alliance, the longest serving leader of the official opposition in Parliament since the advent of democracy, and a former ambassador. He is chairperson of a communications company.