Wither smaller parties... Wither our democracy?
On Sunday Julius Malema had what must now be the third or fourth launch of his Economic Freedom Fighters. It went as expected; hundreds or thousands of people rocked up, he spoke, took a swipe at Zuma and the ANC, and a bull died. But another speaker had something very interesting to say. And his mere presence at the gathering was hugely indicative of what's going on in our democracy with regard to smaller parties and what that means in terms of the options we have in our democracy.
No democracy is really a democracy. I realise I sound a bit like a first-year politics student with bad hair, a pimply face and a beret that goes pink in my mother's washing machine [Stop it, Stephen, you're making us see it - Ed]. But the point is that in a democracy you are only given the chance to choose from a limited number of options. In ours, as is in most other places, we get to choose between things called political parties, a strange mixture of money, organisation, and ego. It's not perfection. It is, quite obviously, the worst political system (although we've tried some of the others, but they were even less fun).
So, when we start to see that some of our options are dying off, it's important to sit up and take notice, and ponder what this means for our democracy. Which takes us back to a young loudmouth, a beret growing more faded by the day, and that unfortunate bull.
On Sunday at Marikana (there being nowhere else in the country where Malema could out-organise the ANC), one of the speakers was Bantu Holomisa. Nothing wrong in that, he's a politician. But from another party. He has his own special mixture of money, organisation, and ego (you always find there's more ego than money in the smaller parties). He's got his own party to lead. So what on earth was he doing there?
When he was asked on the Midday Report why he had attended, he completely evaded the question with a fairly bumptious "I was asked, why should I not go if I was asked?" Of course that doesn't really answer the question. Why would a politician from one party go to speak to another party's crowd?
For the same reason that it's happened before in our country. IFP leader Mangosotho Bhutulezi has been to several DA conferences just to say "howzit", while Cope, famously, invited all the opposition parties (but not Thabo Mbeki) to their launch, in the days before Mbhazima Shilowa set up his own opposition parties within Cope.
It's all about trying to work together, of finding ways to create synergies to somehow manoeuvre themselves into a better place. Or, if you prefer, in the hopes of stealing some of the other guy's crowd.
For years Holomisa has been talking up the possibilities of a coalition. Because that's what you do when your party has around one percent of the vote. You try to create your position in something else, so that your political career is still safe.
Helen Zille over at the DA has been doing the same thing, mainly because she believes her party has the structure, organisation and the money (and not nearly as much ego as in some of the others) to make it all happen. For her, the big draw card might be the chance to change the DA's identity. To go from the "party that would bring back apartheid" to something very different. If you can imagine Cope, Agang, the IFP and the DA all joining together, it would have to be the DA's structure that remains, while the skin of the new party would suddenly be much browner.
And on one level, Zille and Co are absolutely right to believe that a single large opposition party might present the ANC with much more of a fight. It would somehow be a much more even contest, particularly if the race card was no longer as strong as it can be at the moment.
But we, as South Africans, would all lose something. We are a cruel, crazy beautiful place, crueler, crazier and more full of beauty than many others. It's literally in our national motto, "Unity through diversity". Now, you may just think that actually this does nothing for us really, and that it just adds some local colour. But you'd be wrong.
The whole point of a democracy like ours, with its checks and balances, is to really create a system in which you have lots of different people with different agendas all pulling in different directions. It means that if you want to make headway with your agenda, you really have to convince a lot of people to agree with you. You literally have to have the critical mass of Gwede Mantashe to get the country to go along with you.
This means the more parties we have, the better it is. Think of it like this. It was Holomisa who went to the Public Protector with the claim that Pansy Tlakula was not hiring buildings in quite the proper way. History has shown that he was right. There's a much bigger example to play with. Remember Patricia de Lille and her Arms Deal Dossier? That piece of paperwork did a lot to get the ball rolling in the early days of investigations into the deal. Without it, and without her reading it into the Parliamentary record, the entire history of the country could have been difficult.
In both these cases, these were strong-willed (or egotistical, if you're mean-spirited) individuals, who had the freedom to do what they wanted, because they were the leaders of their own parties. There was no national body or leader or enemy within the party that they had to check with, they could just go ahead and do it. They were very much their own person in making the decision.
This is what we will start to lose. Think of it another way. Perhaps the smallest politically active, racial minority in the country are the Indians. And yet they don't really have a party of their own. They were supposed to have their own person, in the form of Amichand Rajbansi and his Minority Front. But the Bengal Tiger fell for the lure of the ANC, and so formed an alliance with them. Which meant that there was no one really standing up for a group that perhaps had good reason to think they didn't have as strong a voice as they deserved.
The Freedom Front's Pieter Mulder seems to have found a way to have his cake and eat it, by getting both a deputy-ministerial position, and being able to publicly believe that no one was living in the interior of South Africa when whites arrived. But at least there is a voice that is part of our society, and expressing certain views.
In a country as complex as ours, the number of voices matter. Everyone likes to feel they have at least been heard, even if they have been outvoted. Extremism can creep in when people feel they don't have anyone looking out for them. It's important to keep people inside the system, rather than outside it. And when Malema and Red October grab the spotlight, you have to ask yourself if this is the side-effect of our move to what will probably become a two-party system in the end.
_Stephen Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on twitter: _ @StephenGrootes
This column appeared in _ Daily Maverick._