R Munusamy: A Protest Nation on fire

To date, there are 135 political parties hoping to participate in the 2014 elections at national and provincial level. South Africans have never before had so many options for where to place their cross on the ballot papers. While this might be a sign of a strengthening democracy, it also shows fragmentation of parties and sections of society in opposition to the ANC. The fiasco of the short-lived, sponsored merger between the DA and Agang exposed how superficial the margins between some of the parties are. With thousands of people in disaffected communities shouting to be heard, does the myriad of political parties represent the true state of South African society?

It might be difficult to believe now but since the dawn of democracy, the most successful political party at the polls next to the ANC was the National Party under FW de Klerk. In 1994 the National Party received 20.39% of the vote, representing those who were resisting popular change and probably terrified at the prospect of black rule in the country (the Democratic Alliance's best performance was 16.6% in 2009). That constituency eventually dissipated as South African society evolved towards normality, which is why the National Party and its reformatted descendent, the New National Party, were unsustainable.

While the ANC remains the most popular and dominant political force in the country, there are a host of political parties competing in the same space to oppose it. The DA, Congress of the People (Cope), Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), United Democratic Movement (UDM), and African Christian Democratic are in the same vicinity on the political spectrum with many overlaps in policy positions. To the right is the Freedom Front Plus, with a very defined constituency of white Afrikaners, while the Pan Africanist Congress and Azanian People's Organisation have one MP each in Parliament representing those still striving for African nationalism and black consciousness respectively.

The short-lived partnership between the DA and the leader of Agang, Mamphela Ramphele, was meant to propel a major shift in South African politics and redefine the terrain. But because DA leader Helen Zille and Ramphele were prodded into co-operating by a financier and not by their respective constituencies or compelling issues, the arrangement turned out to be a sham. Following Ramphele's somersault, Agang will battle at the polls as the past week's events would have caused many of its supporters to rethink whether to vest their trust with the party and its leader. Zille might ride the storm now but she will have to face the backlash from within her party later.

The DA projects itself as South Africa's most racially diverse party but the catapulting of Ramphele to the top of its national list as 'presidential candidate' has exposed the party's deficiency in black leadership. Ramphele's defection was clearly meant to window-dress the DA with a renowned black face to counter criticism that it was a party representing white interest and privilege.

Had a merger between the DA and Agang been structured differently, and not been financially motivated, it could have made perfect sense. The parties' policies and ideological standing are similar and they are currently splitting a constituency that has the same complaints against the ANC. All the opposition parties are well aware that the more they split the opposition vote, the more secure the ANC is in its dominance.

On Wednesday, some of the parties sought to reassure that opposition co-operation was still possible and potentially effective in spite of the DA-Agang flop. DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said at an election debate hosted by the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry she believed that South African voters wanted a credible opposition that could challenge the ANC.

"This is what we are hearing from voters and the DA will remain committed to realigning opposition politics in South Africa. Agang would have given us a bump up in terms of representation, but we are forging ahead with the goals we had before embarking on the merger," Mazibuko said.

Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota said a grouping called the Collective for Democracy now had seven opposition parties working in co-operation to secure enough votes to form a new government. He said the DA would not have a chance of becoming the government without a coalition of parties behind it.

"It is a question left for the voters to make sure they vote for change and for the coalition to make sure that [President Jacob] Zuma and his friends occupy the opposition party benches after the elections," Lekota was quoted by Sapa.

But as the opposition leaders were speaking in Johannesburg, elsewhere in the city, the South African Police Service was releasing figures showing that in the last three months, there had been over 500 service delivery protests in Gauteng alone. About a quarter of these turned violent, according to Acting Gauteng Police Commissioner Lesetja Mothiba. While Gauteng is the epicentre of the community uprisings, they are prevalent nationwide, indicative of frustration with the quality and pace of delivery of government services.

Sebokeng, south of Johannesburg, is the latest township marred by extreme violence as the community took to the streets to protest housing delivery. One person was killed on Wednesday in the protest action. Earlier, protestors in Bronkhorstspruit east of Pretoria set alight several buildings, including a clinic. The day before a library was set alight, while last week a satellite police station and municipal offices were torched.

Despite the frequency of the protests and the numerous fatalities, opposition political parties are unable to tap into the disillusionment and exasperation with the ANC government in these communities. While a few opposition party leaders have visited bereaved families of those killed in the protests, communities are not turning to them to represent their grievances. In fact, there is no trend of disgruntled communities in ANC strongholds switching political allegiance because of their grievances.

Opposition parties have also not been able to organise in the space to the left of the ANC, which the South African Communist Party (SACP) was meant to represent. Since the SACP's leaders were assimilated into government and the party rendered toothless, the working class and poor have been left largely unrepresented and voiceless politically.

The rupture in Cosatu has caused further disillusionment and confusion amongst workers, particularly after the decision taken at the special congress of metalworkers' union Numsa not to support the ANC in the upcoming election. Numsa has not spelt out whom their members and supporters should vote for instead because no existing political party fits the bill of their policy positions. Numsa is now exploring how to shape a platform to advance its political positions but this is likely to be established ahead of the next local government elections in 2016.

None of the existing opposition parties have been able to step into all these breaches, which is why their potential for growth has been limited. The ANC will continue to occupy the centre of the political spectrum and maintain control of government for as long as it doesn't have strong opposition from the left, where there is little political organisation and a growing constituency of unrepresented people.

The new player on the political scene, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by Julius Malema, quickly realised the political space available to them where others fear to tread. For this reason, the EFF is gaining significant traction amongst frustrated communities and the youth. While the EFF is largely a personality-based party associated with the leftist rhetoric of its firebrand leader, it is the only party driven by a defined policy position rather than general opposition to the ANC. Irrespective of the merits of its policy on nationalisation, the EFF has done well to make its supporters believe that it is the key to their economic emancipation and the magic bullet to turn around the fortunes of the poor and unemployed.

Even with 135 political parties competing for votes, there are still communities who are unrepresented and voiceless, desperate for someone to hear them. For as long as these people are without political representation, the protests will continue and the number of fatalities will grow. If the ANC continues to be deaf to their cries, and established opposition parties are unable to give them a voice, the phenomenon of violent protests could rage out of control.

South Africa cannot continue to call itself a healthy democracy with a variety of political choices as long as those choices have no impact on the hundreds of communities erupting in violence because there is no other expression for their frustration.

The de facto one-party political system is not amenable to the changing conditions in the country. The 2014 elections might turn out to be another one of those where the country's leadership is elected regardless of their performance and delivery record, and where some voters still vote according to their nostalgia for a bygone era. Hopefully it will not. As long as opposition parties still largely watch the game from the sidelines, this Protest Nation will continue to burn.

This column appeared on _ Daily Maverick._