Political parties are indispensable to the functioning of a democratic system. Parties function “like no other organisation” – as an interface between political citizenry, extra-parliamentary organisations, and government, at the national, provincial and municipal levels.
Prevailing opinion considers political parties in African states to be fragmented, unstructured, undemocratic, marked by patronage, tribalist, and indistinguishable in terms of ideology. This generalisation is dangerous and overlooks individual differences and important tendencies.
The opinion does, however, make an interesting starting point for an analysis of South Africa’s political parties. It would not be hard to make the adjectives above describe local parties.
Perhaps the most concerning of these lenses is the “undemocratic” one. There are reasons to suspect that the politically-dominant ANC supports democracy only when it suits its aims, but ideologically considers the National Democratic Revolution its lodestar rather than the Constitution. The ANC’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic suggests a preference for centralised command-and-control rather than institutionalised democratic engagement. The EFF sings from the same hymn sheet.
How does this fit into the global debate of democracy versus autocracy?
#TheMidpoint is part of an effort of strengthen the quality and role of political parties in South Africa. In view of global system competition with China, actors that promote democracy must become more active in their efforts. Calls for more autocracy are becoming louder, both among African governing parties and citizens, who are understandably dissatisfied with their governments’ performance.
Supporters of democracy must not shy away from this debate. African governments regularly spin the question, saying that democracy was introduced against the will of African countries. This allows them to avoid discussion of their own faults. They also point to China and Singapore as examples of the supposed development advantages of autocracy.
Demagogues and self-styled prophets should therefore be regularly reminded that it was the African countries themselves that chose, after the Cold War, in the vast majority of cases, to introduce multi-party democracy, and so they are themselves responsible for its subsequent neglect – not any external power.
Moreover, a great majority of African countries already have a long history of autocracy – with no successes in economic development to show for it.
*blog prepared with liberal use of the language and ideas in the following article by Mr Müchler and Mr Schmidt that reflects on parties in Africa: https://www.kas.de/en/web/auslandsinformationen/artikel/detail/-/content/parties-in-africa.