Smaller parties are one of the main beneficiaries of our electoral system. If we had to have a constituency based electoral system with “first-past-the-post” as the norm, South Africa would have eventually evolved into a two-party system, as is the case in most constituent based democracies. Yet the founding parents of our constitutional democracy deliberately decided on a system whereby all, even those on the fringes of our society, could be given a voice through the party of their choice.
Our first democratic parliament saw seven parties go into the National Assembly. By 2014, two decades later, this number had doubled to 13 parties. Often commentators and pollsters would ignore smaller parties in the run-up to elections but these have proven to be influential in the outcomes and their ability to survive.
Take for example, the African Independent Congress. Completely ignored by all commentators and media before the 2014 elections, many dismissed the party on their surprise entry into parliament as simply “voter confusion”. These voters, voting for the AIC, thought they were voting for the ANC and confused the two parties, suggested the commentators. However, in reality, even if we agree with this analysis, the AIC was able to use this ‘default’ vote to catapult themselves into determining the outcome of a metro two years later.
In 2014, the AIC garnered nearly a hundred thousand votes in the national ballot, they only received votes in the Eastern and Western Cape, on the provincial ballot, which amounted to just over twenty-three thousand votes. In other words, they were setting themselves up as a regional party, on a regional issue i.e. Matatiele, and yet received over seventy thousand more votes in other provinces, on the national ballot.
By 2016, two years later, they had increased their votes to nearly a hundred and fifty thousand on the proportional ballot nationally. They had grown by 50 000 votes in two years i.e. more or less a seat in the national assembly and, as mentioned, were determining, together with two other smaller parties, who governs one of South Africa’s eight metropolitan cities, Ekurhuleni. This in a province they did not even contest in 2014.
Parties should not usually grow in a local government elections because voter turn-out is about ten percent less than in a national and provincial elections. For example, the ANC went from over 11 million in 2014 to over 8 million in 2016 on the proportional ballot. The DA did not move between the two elections, staying at just above 4 million while the EFF increased their votes by sixty-thousand votes.
Often smaller parties are portrayed by our media and commentators as a fringe group, with peripheral issues and organising around a rabble-rouser leader. Yet some of these smaller parties hold a broader base and certainly have the potential to change the political landscape.
Take for example, the African Transformation Movement (ATM). Many media commentators have dismissed the party simply because it could be a Zuma invention and has the maverick Mzwanele Manyi in it. No one mentions that Manyi plays a very junior role in the party, his counterpart being Jeff Radebe in the ANC, while the party was formed and led by leaders of the South African Messianic Council of Churches (SAMCC). This council is mentioned in passing but no one has taken the time to delve into exactly who this body is.
On the quantitative side, the council comprises of the largest christian churches in South Africa including the Bantu Church of Christ, Ntsikani Bantu Prophets, Twelve Apostles’ Church in Christ, The Twelve Apostles’ Church in Christ, Bantu Churches, Nazareth-Ebuhleni, Zion Christian Churches, among other churches. Independent African Christian churches account for a quarter of South Africa’s population; that is about 15 million South Africans. Estimates suggest that the membership of the last church mentioned, ZCC, alone being at 8 to 10 million. The ANC received less than 12 million votes in 2014.
Of course, not all of these 8 to 10 million people in the ZCC alone will be registered but herein lies the qualitative side of things. In the past, the SAMCC has pledged their support and loyalty to the ANC. Should there be a shift in this vote it will fundamentally be one based on the fact that the voter is not walking away from the ANC because a conscious decision was made to do so nor is it about joining a party because it attracts a specific demographic e.g. the EFF who attracts young, African men. Rather what is happening is that this die-hard ANC supporter, who has been supporting and voting for the ANC because his priest, bishop and church have been saying so and that it is the ‘righteous’ thing to do, will be moving away from the ANC.
Put differently, those who left the ANC to form the PAC, UDM, COPE and the EFF did so because they were dissatisfied with the ANC politically. They were on their way out and standing at the door already, as it were. A level of political consciousness existed and what the ANC had on offer, either factionally or ideologically, was in conflict with theirs.
Yet what the SAMCC, through ATM, is now doing is taking away those supporters and voters from the heart of the ANC home; those who have no political or factional quarrel with the ANC. Between between now and the elections these voters, in their millions, will be sitting in weekly, if not three to four times a week, mini-rallies, dressed as church services, across the country being told that they must support the ATM because the churches have now ‘seen the light’.
Therefore, we underestimate Manyi’s quip when he says that the ATM has more members than the ANC. The 2019 national and provincial elections will also yield a good result for the Freedom Front Plus. Not since the demise of the National Party has any other party challenged the DA’s hegemony over the White vote. For the first time since 2004, will the White vote become more fluid and we will see an increase in votes for the FF+.
The choice of Pieter Marais, as the FF+ premier candidate in the Western Cape, will also confirm the notion of the Coloured vote being fluid and while some Coloured conservatives will move with their White counterparts to the FF+, other Coloured nationalists will move to Patricia de Lille’s GOOD. Inevitably GOOD will grow, in their first elections they can only grow, but will not be nearly as big as the support that the Independent Democrats enjoyed in their heyday.
As White fears increase, Coloured frustrations simmer, African anger and impatience grows, emotions that are justifiable while ultimately determining the growth of such small parties; given the national and economic landscape of the global economic. Black First Land First is therefore bound to get a few seats in parliament.
The policy crisis in the DA, and ANC, is not unique to these centrist parties in South Africa. It is a global phenomenon with centrist parties. For example, BREXIT continues to be a major headache simply because neither Labour nor the Tories have a clear-cut policy on it. Trump continues to whip up the conservative base in the USA simply because both the Republicans and the Democrats fail to create cohesion, in their parties, on key policy issues.
In a political landscape where centrist parties are in crisis it is only smaller parties that will benefit. Analysts, commentators and political activists ignore them at their own peril. In 2019, smaller parties will win for unlike their bigger counterparts they have nothing to lose.
Wesley Seale has over decade’s experience in electoral research. He lectured South African politics and democratic theory at Rhodes University and the University of the Western Cape.