SA follows Lesotho’s route of too many political parties

The Union Buildings in Pretoria during President Cyril Ramaphosa’s inaugural address last week. Photo: GCIS

The Union Buildings in Pretoria during President Cyril Ramaphosa’s inaugural address last week. Photo: GCIS

Published Jun 24, 2024


What is quite clear is South Africa is going to follow the Lesotho route in having too many political parties. Some label this trend the maturation path of democracy, but is it really, or is it the disintegration of democracy?

In the Sixties, when asked, “Why this tiny country in the middle of South Africa?”, Lesotho politician Ntsu Mokhehle responded, “Lesotho is a gizzard whose task is to digest”.

In that respect, everything South Africa swallows is the task of Lesotho to digest. How prophetic the words of Mokhehle have been, as the path Lesotho followed in its multiple fallout seems to have been ingested by South Africa.

From the early 60’s up to the early 2000s, Lesotho had two major parties. These were the Basotholand National Party (BNP) and the Basotholand Congress Party (BCP). The knobkierie was the symbol of the BCP, while the victory sign was the symbol of the BNP.

Memory lane shows that in 1993, Mokhehle, the pan-African stalwart, rose and had a clean sweep of all constituencies in the first free and fair elections contestation since Lesotho’s independence in 1966. He led the BCP from its birth in the Fifties.

However, because of an internal power struggle, within its first five years of government, Mokhehle had to mutate it into the Lesotho Convention for Democracy (LCD), before he stepped down in 1998 after one term. He handed over the leadership to Pakalitha Mosisili, who led the LCD. Like his predecessor, Mosisili’s victory was a landslide, leading him to win 79 of 80 constituencies.

He was in power for 14 years, before he broke off from LCD and formed the Democratic Congress (DC) in 2012.

As these parties tumbled and broke up from 2013, strange bedfellows emerged. The talk in town was that the BNP was brandishing victory with the knobkierie.

So, by looking at South Africa through the lens of what the main parties in Lesotho went through, the season of strange bedfellows, which were triggered by the declining majority in the two main political parties and the formation of coalitions, and ultimately the emergence of new parties that subsequently became the government.

While the Lesotho example is real, it is not unique but also what is observed in the so-called mature democracies of the West, power shifts between two parties.

It is the case in the US between the Democrats and the Republicans, and in the United Kingdom, where the ping-pong is between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.

To conclude that South Africa’s democracy shows signs of maturity may require an application of a different measure.

Maturity of democracy should be measured by how well democracy is delivering progressively on its promise, and not on the accelerating intensity of speed through the revolving door we witnessed in the local government sphere.

Marty Linsky’s book, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, sheds much light at this time of political turmoil.

The book discusses the art of negotiation and the role of empathy or feeling the other’s pain, which is walking in each other’s moccasins. The poor, presumably, would like to walk in the luxurious moccasins of the rich, but probably that is not what they wish for. Neither are the rich prepared to spend just under ten minutes in a shack without water, sanitation and/or electricity.

As the coalition become a reality, the arguments are naturally going to be about portfolios and stakes, policies could be next, planning could be quite hazy in the absence of proper planning systems in government.

When a country does not have scenario-building capability, its planning system is certainly going to be dwarf-like, and the latter we have witnessed from the days of the National Development Plan, New Growth Plan, Nine-Point Plan, which gave birth to its new skeleton, the 14-Point Plan, the Economic Recovery and Reconstruction Plan and, lastly, the manifesto of Doing More Together.

Post the elections there were overtures to other parties based on an agreement of a Government of National Unity (GNU). The journey to align political manifestos of a range of employment-creation targets will be no mean feat, given that the government planning system does not possess an econometric modelling capability that examines the implications of macro-economic policies on poverty, inequality and unemployment.

The Computable General Equilibrium Models that the Treasury and the Reserve Bank use are confined to economic indicators and assumptions about the economy. They generate growth, prices, balance of trade and debt to GDP ratios, and not the impact indicators that we annually harp on as the triple challenge.

By some fiat we think we can understand and relate to the future on these crucial indicators, through an exclusively rear mirror view of Statistics South Africa’s rich data presents on poverty, inequality and unemployment.

Without integrated modelling capability into these areas of essential work, we shall wallow away from what nationalist leader Amilcar Cabral states as an imperative: “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children."

The ideas shared in the book by Marty Linsky on adaptive change and technical change are most appropriate as we enter GNU. We have to pay attention to the results of Census 1996 that showed that the ideas of Linsky were appropriate and relevant for engaging in building a democratic country from a viciously divided past.

The censuses of 1996, 2001, 2011 and 2022 and other time-series data affirm the relevance of Linsky’s teachings, especially now. The points of inflection demonstrate how much South Africa has regressed, losing the gains of nationhood garnered in the first 15 years of democracy.

Former president Thabo Mbeki called for a dialogue before the election and this was affirmed then by President Cyril Ramaphosa. As the President of the Seventh Administration, he has called for a national dialogue.

The era of strange bedfellows that are like the BNP that sloganeered the victory sign with a knobkierie, the ANC is sloganeering Amandla in Blue. What then can we learn from Linsky’s Leadership on the Line in driving South Africa forward?

This might be the kiss of death for both parties.

Dr Pali Lehohla is a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished Alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa