What’s the point of opposition politics in Southern Africa?

Opposition parties, inequality, and the politics of failure in the Southern African region.

Fees Must Fall protesters in October 2015 in Pretoria, South Africa. Image credit Paul Saad via Flickr CC.

Recently, the first black leader of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), Mmusi Maimane, stepped down as leader of the party. Maimane had been seen by some as having a real chance to reorient South African politics by tapping into long-simmering discontent with the ANC by many in the black majority who still do not feel seen or serviced by government. The DA also hoped to capitalize on Maimane’s youth—he was only 34 when he took over as party leader. It was, thus, his race and his youth around which the party hoped to rally younger voters, whose support for the ANC is the lowest of any group.

The idea that opposition parties might be able to tap into the large number of underemployed youth and other discontented citizens across the southern African region has long been a feature of political commentary and politician discourse. Apart from South Africa, in Lesotho, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, the idea that opposition parties might harness those disconnected from the system has a certain appeal. These analyses, however, all assume that these individuals and groups feel like the political system can fundamentally reform to meet their needs. What if, however, the disaffection has spread so widely that youth and marginalized adults are reaching a tipping point, where people are going to demand not merely inclusion into previously exclusionary political systems, but rather a fundamental reorientation of political and economic systems they view as corrupt for having shut them out entirely for so long? Could we be seeing the start of a “new Southern Africa 1968” where protests by youth and the disaffected have a chance of fundamentally altering, or at least shaking the foundations of current systems?

False hope in oppositions?

While some South Africans put forth Maimane (and other now-departed, black, younger leaders in the DA such as Lindiwe Mazibuko) as the youthful, black faces of the future who could lead the DA from being a thinly disguised rump of the old National Party into a national force, it was never clear that the party had fundamentally changed. That is, many viewed it as still being in the hands of a white economic elite living off apartheid-era-based financial privilege. Maimane, in his exit speech, hinted that the party had never truly transformed to the point where it could reasonably represent South Africa’s poor majority, saying that it was clear “the DA is not the vehicle best suited to take forward the vision of building One South Africa for All.”

Similarly, across the border in Lesotho, the roles of the ruling party and opposition have been rapidly shifting back and forth since the advent of the coalition era of Lesotho politics in 2012. Rather than thinking in terms of ruling/opposition, it is perhaps better to think of them as those in power versus those seeking power since policy differences between the parties are not very substantial. In any case, none of the parties that have been deemed the opposition over the past seven years have adequately represented the majority of the citizens in Lesotho who lack access to the political system and who are struggling economically.

In Botswana, long lauded as an exemplar of functional African democracy, the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change, led by 50-year old Duma Boko, fell far short in its efforts to unseat the ruling Botswana Democratic Party. Its main strength prior to the election was the media attention given to its endorsement by former present Ian Khama, rather than any strong evidence of mobilization among Botswana’s disaffected. Thus, the opposition here, much like in Lesotho, was based around personality grievances among a ruling class rather than on significant policy differences that had a chance of addressing the unmet needs of the poor.

The destructive stasis of opposition

It seems reasonable to conclude that regional politics in Southern Africa are not in a state of flux, but rather at a point of destructive stasis. Rather than looking to opposition parties for change, many people are expressing their frustrations with the inequality and lack of political access through street protest, strikes, and other out-of-the-system protest actions. Will these lead to accommodation from the systems, or are we reaching a tipping point whereby systems break if they do not address the concerns of the historically-disenfranchised majority?

In South Africa, the ANC continues to be the ruling party, but its faction fights and the recent drop in the numbers of people voting suggests a large degree of alienation from the political process. In Lesotho, similarly, electoral participation has also fallen since the 1993 return of multi-party democracy. Zimbabwe has seen an increasing number of street protests against the government of Emmerson Mnangagwa. Lesotho teachers, who walked out of their classrooms in February over pay grievances, are back again on strike because the government failed to address their issues. There is currently no resolution in sight. Massive protests have also rocked the National University in Lesotho early this term after the government failed to distribute bursaries on time, and the university shut down for weeks. Protests regularly break out in South African communities large and small over the failure of government to provide services. In all of these cases, protestors are notably not appealing to opposition parties or asking for inclusion into political systems but are calling simply for their grievances to be addressed.

At best, opposition politicians, themselves, seem to be merely tinkering at the margins of the problems. The DA has reverted to the leadership of John Steenhuisen and Helen Zille. This is the same Zille who was roundly roasted for describing colonialism as “not all bad” multiple times on social media—a stance that signals her and the party’s inability to connect with the majority of South Africans. Perhaps change from within the system could come from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), under the leadership of Julius Malema. However, many worry that the EFF simply represents a disgruntled faction that broke politically with the ANC, but displays similar autocratic and kleptocratic tendencies, as evidenced by the VBS Mutual Bank scandal. In Lesotho, Parliament is at a stand-still and the political reform process that was supposed to be completed by May of 2019 remains incomplete (though still taking public money). Botswana opposition parties not only can’t win an election, but they also fail to represent those who are disenfranchised either! The opposition in Zimbabwe at least talks about the disenfranchised and poor, but in an autocratic system it is not clear that their tactics have any ability to penetrate a system of massive state failure. Where is the hope for those wanting change within the system? It is certainly not visible to many in the opposition party platforms and actions in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, or Zimbabwe.

Opposition malaise and new protest forms?

Although the politics of opposition seem to be out of alignment with the increasingly sour mood of the majority in a number of Southern African countries, is this really any worse than what the rest of the world is facing at the moment? Politics in many places seem to be in disarray—from the abject anarchy of the Brexit process/general election in the UK to the muddle that is the ongoing impeachment inquiry in the United States, and then, of course, the massive street protests playing out in places as disparate as Hong Kong, Iraq, Lebanon, Spain, Bolivia, and Chile, among others.

Perhaps what we are seeing is the beginning of another age of global protest, led by youth and those feeling disaffected by political systems the world over. Are we at a new 1968? It is, perhaps, too soon to tell, but what is going on in Southern Africa is at once part of that trend of global protest, and something more than these other direct actions. For one, the structural problems in Southern Africa are significantly worse than the rest of the world. Southern Africa is home to six of the top nine most unequal countries (South Africa, Botswana and Lesotho) in the world according to the GINI coefficient calculations. This, of course, is a lingering legacy of the history and long reach of racial capitalism in South Africa and other regional settler colonial states. It is also, however, a trend that has been perpetuated and accentuated by contemporary politicians. These trends have coalesced in a large generation of disaffected adults and youth who have lost any hope that they will be able to access the political process, economic prosperity, or the social standing that comes with full membership in society. Amplified by social media and wider access to informal networks of solidarity that mobile apps allow, the disparate disconnectedness of marginalized groups in all of these countries could lead to national or even a region-wide movement. Although internet usage rates remain low in the SADC region, it is easy to both see how this will expand rapidly in the coming years, and how it could play out in terms of organizing and mobilization.

So far Botswana, South Africa, and Lesotho have not yet seen mass movements like national stay-aways or strikes to force systematic change. Zimbabwe has. Is this the future for the rest of the region? Another factor that could play into increasing protests is the continued collapse of the informal social safety net precipitated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Many of the striking students at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) are not simply “entitled kids,” but heads-of-household with no other means of support because so many of their parents passed away prematurely from AIDS. The social safety net that many have relied on in recent years—grandparents—are also passing away, as Ellen Block has detailed in her book. With the ongoing demise of this informal safety net, there will be even more vulnerable youth and young adults. What the impact of this will be on protest movements is, as of yet, unknown, but when something like government bursaries are delayed (as was the case at NUL), this meant that many students were unable to eat. The urgency felt by those asked to study on empty bellies trumped the desire of the political system and institution to silence them.

At the moment, the politics of stasis, the politics of moderate reform, and opposition parties in Southern Africa all represent the politics of failure. Appointing yet another commission to study the problem of poverty or including the same few political leaders in yet another reforms dialogue does not address root problems that leave the majorities in most Southern African countries outside the political and economic systems.

Time will tell, but current political dispositions that attempt merely to engage those already in the political process are running even more risk that the tinderbox of poverty, inequality, and disenfranchisement will soon break out into the flames of more radical protest. Is the current regional political leadership listening?

About the Author

John Aerni-Flessner is Assosictae Professor of African and World History at Michigan State University.

Moletsane Monyake was a lecturer in political science at the National University of Lesotho. He died from complications from COVID-19 in January 2021.

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