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Reflections on Cope ructions

Aubrey Matshiqi speaks with Polity's Brad Dubbelman on substantive democracy. Camera: Nicholas Boyd. Editing: Darlene Creamer.

14th May 2010

By: Aubrey Matshiqi


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Is substantive democracy possible in a country that is not blessed with substantive uncertainty?

I have been mulling over this question because of what appears to be the death of the dream of the Congress of the People (Cope) as a credible alternative to the African National Congress (ANC).


Countries where election results are not always certain have what is technically referred to as ‘substantive uncertainty’. South Africa, a country that has been cursed with a lack of substantive uncer- tainty since 1948, is not blessed with opposition parties that constitute a credible alternative to the ruling party. Personally, I have no doubt that a lack of substantive uncertainty can compromise the democratic experience of citi- zens if the dominant party is in power for too long.

I am not making the narrow argument that the alternation of ruling parties on its own amounts to a successful consolidation of democracy. I believe that factors such as the enhancement of our political culture and respect for democratic institutions will go a long way towards delivering substantive democracy to South Africans. In addition, we must not conceive of democratic consolidation in terms of a political order that limits alternatives to the formal sphere of party politics.


In other words, ours must be a demo- cratic order that respects the right of citizens to mobilise for a better life in the non- formal sphere of politics too. This means that we must define politics beyond the party political institutional realm. We must accept that some of the changes we desire may come from the nonparty political space or may result from an interaction, conflictual or otherwise, between the party political and the non-party political.

What should citizens do when they are failed by both opposition parties and the ruling party? Should they not seek alter- native means of political engagement outside the party political space? My view is that they should, given the fact that there will be times in the life of a democracy when change cannot be effected through the political party system alone. The deepening of the democratic expe- rience for citizens is contingent on the coexistence of political parties and people’s organisations outside the system, on the one hand, and the maturity of such people’s organisations, on the other.

For the people to truly govern, they must be able to influence the course of our democracy through political parties and the organisation and mobilisation of citizens by other means. Lest I be misunderstood, this is not a call for anarchy, but an appeal for the broadening of our conception of the democratic space. Such a conception will save us from the vagaries of party politics.

In the absence of a competitive party system, our only hope is a people that is well orga- nised outside poli- tical parties. Since South Africa is still very far from such a political reality, the alternative is to lament the dismal state of opposition politics. It is in the course of such lamenta- tion that some have come to believe that a credible opposition party can only emerge from a split within the ANC. It is for this reason that there was so much hype and excitement when a coterie of ANC leaders left the ruling party in a huff to form Cope in 2008.

As some political commentators observed at the time, no political project can succeed on the basis of anger alone. They, of course, were referring to the fact that those who left the ANC to form Cope had done so simply because they had lost power at Polokwane. Since the split came very soon after Thabo Mbeki was recalled by the ANC, they may have thought there would be a groundswell of opposition to the decision, on the basis of which they may have hoped to mobilise sufficient support for the idea of forming a new party. But, as we now know, the split was not qualitatively significant. For a split to be qualitatively significant, it must satisfy the following conditions:

• a qualitatively significant number of leaders at both national and local level must be part of the split;
• the split must represent the capacity to develop a policy framework that will help in the creation of a distinct political identity;
• the leadership, policies and values architecture of the new party must coincide with the aspirations of a significant number of people in the support base of the old party; and
• the new party must have the potential to create a new constituency from floating voters or those who have been voting for parties other than the ruling party.

The problems in Cope suggest that the party is failing to build on its April 2009 electoral performance. It seems, in the foreseeable future, citizens should not expect the party political system to deliver a substantive democratic experience.


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