William M Gumede: We need an opposition, but one with credibility

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The Independent Online

The return of the party of apartheid might seem enough to turn the stomach of any black South African. Yet in spite of its record as a party of oppression and segregation and what I suffered at its hands, the disappearance of the National Party (NP) from the political scene deprived South Africa of an alternative voice. And I understand the reasons behind an attempted resurrection – to provide a real opposition – even if I do not rate its chances of success.

The Achilles heel of South Africa's democracy is the lack of a relevant, effective and credible opposition party that talks to the country's long-suffering black majority. This void has led to extraordinary complacency in the ruling African National Congress, and is one of the main reasons for the country's deepening political crisis.

That is why it would have been more beneficial had the NP – which still got almost a quarter of the vote at the 1994 elections that ushered Nelson Mandela to power – continued its move towards non-racialism under younger leadership and remained as an opposition party. Instead, in 2004, what was left of it merged with the ANC.

The lack of opposition in South Africa means that no matter how badly the ANC governs, the policies of the opposition parties are so alien that the only way black voters can vent their disillusionment is by not voting in next year's general elections. Yet even given the paucity of opposition parties, the attempt to reform the NP in a new form is not the answer.

Indeed, a new NP is likely to vanish into the sea of ineffectiveness. Not surprisingly, the old stalwarts of the NP, like the last white president, FW de Klerk, prefer the NP to remain buried and have strenuously objected to the mavericks behind the attempt to reincarnate it.

Jean Duval-Uys and the other figures behind the new formation were former members of a political circus party, the tiny Western Cape-based National People's Party, who fell out with their colourful leader, Badih Chaaban, after the latter allegedly assaulted them.

They lack political credibility and gravitas. Given the still-open wounds of the struggle against apartheid, any new party that wants to make inroads into the black vote must be led by leaders who played some credible role during "the struggle".

The most fertile ground foropposition is probably within the ranks of the ruling ANC, which has separated into a centre-left faction, rallied around Mr Mbeki, and a left faction, led by ANC president, Jacob Zuma. South Africa's politics will be more accountable if the country has a centre-left core ANC; a left party formed from the ANC's trade union and communist party allies; and the assortment of opposition parties on the centre-right.

Only when the ruling party fears losing an election will South Africa's politics be infused with the electoral dynamism the country so desperately needs to renew its faltering democracy and provide a better life for all its people, black or white.

WM Gumede is author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC