This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
18 Oct 1996: James, Wilmot
POM The two areas I want to cover are really concerning the development of multi-party democracy, the prospects for the development of a viable multi-party democracy in South Africa and whether or not that can be enhanced or promoted by the public financing of political parties or of the electoral process and if it can how it should be gone about. So perhaps first I should start by stating what the constitution says, that is that the country shall be founded on the basis of a multi-party system. What's your understanding of what a viable multi-party system is and are there certain features attached to it that you think are necessary ingredients without which you simply don't have a multi-party system?
WJ I suppose a multi-party system is one where there is a degree of competition between parties and where that competition is structured in a manner that's reasonably healthy so that the national interest is served finally. That requires some degree of uncertainty in terms of who controls the levers of power and in terms of what is happening in South Africa presently it appears as if one party has not only a dominant place within parliament and within the executive structures of the state but that that majority seems to be permanent at least in the short term. And so you have one party that controls for the most part the legislature and you have other smaller parties stacked against it but not either collectively or individually having the capacity to at least generate a degree of uncertainty on the part of the majority party, that is sufficiently healthy to make it think about pursuing policies that are actually in the national interest. That sounds a bit abstract but it's that kind of mix that you would want.
POM But in terms of there being an opposition to the present government are there either structures in place or a party system, when I say structures I mean structures other than the Constitutional Court, that are sufficient in themselves to provide the kind of uncertainty as to outcome that one might expect in a more flexible and dynamic multi-party system?
WJ One crucial element around the separation of powers is to have that and in fact the Constitutional Court has proved its strength and its willingness to act in a manner that does not simply result in rubber-stamping what comes out of the legislative arm of government. So that's a good precedent around the constitutional process and one would hope that that precedent continues. There is the question of the executive and its own functions and its degrees of accountability. There is the question of whether parliament would exercise, as an institution, its oversight functions over what the executive does. I don't think it does that sufficiently well. But there is also the question of competition and co-operation between parties in parliament that would result in doing things that are not at the behest of the ANC but in fact are at the behest of government serving the national interest. So those are the three areas.
POM Just on the question of who exercises power, is it the National Executive of the ANC, the government or parliament, or is parliament really a rubber-stamp for decisions that are already made by the NEC and transmitted to the government?
WJ I don't think we know enough about that. I could speculate on that question. I do think that the capacity of parliament to exercise its oversight functions as outlined in the rules, which are actually quite significant, is very uneven and some committees do it and others don't. As an average comment I would say that most committees are not exercising their oversight functions, they are not calling the executive to account as they should and that certainly came up in the issue of Sarafina, as one example where that committee sat on its hands and it sat on its hands because of a series of ANC instructions from the senior leadership to in fact not pursue the issue as they wanted to pursue the issue.
POM Does this worry you?
WJ Yes it worries me, it worries me enormously but the extent of the learning capacity of the ANC is actually quite well developed and so I am reasonably confident that they will actually learn through this rather embarrassing and difficult issue because the problem there is that the minister is a very good minister and is doing very significant things in the area of health and because of what I think is an episode of mismanagement, it's not an episode of corruption, just to make that point, she is getting dragged through a process which should have been over with a long time ago.
POM But in a sense there is no political cost to mismanagement in the sense that there is not an electoral price to pay for just making arbitrary decisions at a higher level, saying this is not going to be pursued. It's much like Mandela on the death penalty saying it's not even going to be raised at the NEC, it's not on the agenda, the Constitutional Court has ruled on it, it's not a subject for further debate, I say that, period, it's out. In other circumstances that might be described as being slightly heavy handed.
WJ It is heavy-handed.
POM What I'm getting at is because one party dominates so much that even if there are oversight mechanisms in place and to a large degree those oversight mechanisms are in the control of the same party they are not subject to a political risk from pursuing what sometimes might be seen as less than democratic methods of doing things.
WJ It's a fundamental issue of governance because when committees exercise their oversight functions they are acting as an arm of parliament not as an arm of a party and without being naïve obviously those things intersect. But one of the problems that's emerging in this country is the blurring of the distinction between the party and government and I think that we should be much clearer about that, that when committees act they act as an institution of government, they don't act as an arm of the party and I think that if you have parties overriding institutions of government like that then we do have a problem.
POM Would you make a distinction between the relationship between party and parliament and the relationship between party and government and the relationship between government and parliament?
WJ I would make all of those distinctions and I think we need some clarity on that.
POM In looking at, I'll get into the question of political realignments, but there would seem to be perhaps a number of ways that a more effective multi-party system could be put in place. One would be certain measures taken by the government, some like you've referred to like the better exercise of an oversight function by parliamentary committees. Are there other measures of this nature that the government could be taking to ensure the system as a multi-party system despite the fact that it is the majority party and it's likely to remain the majority party for the foreseeable future, that there are things it could be doing to improve the efficacy of the multi-party system?
WJ There are a number of things that could be done. I would first of all say that, this sounds a little superficial, it might sound superficial, but there has to be some change in orientation approach that parties have to one another, changes in attitude. It's often the case that if you watch the ANC in parliament, for example, they would have somewhat of a disrespect or mocking attitude towards other parties. If you look at the opposition parties there is a sense in which certain parties would view the ANC as not very effective and so on. There are some bad vibes floating around and I do think that we should develop a spirit and an approach that is much more co-operative and much more respectful. So I think that's quite important in terms of a culture that ought to evolve, and that's across the board, I'm not just picking on the ANC but I think it's across the board there has to be that. Certainly not dismiss people and dismiss other parties because they have no chance whatsoever, at least in the foreseeable future, of unseating the ANC. So that's the one point. The other point has to do ...
POM Do you think there is a tendency for that to happen?
WJ There is a tendency for that to happen and you can see why. The ANC is comfortable and so in fact there is no cost involved and so because of that structural feature of the system as we have now, people have to be doubly aware of developing an approach which is actually quite healthy and in the national interest and that partly involves mutual respect. The second point I would make is that it would be very useful for parties and the ANC in particular to review its role in relation to the institutions of governance and to actually develop some clarity, much greater clarity than presently exists between its function as a party, it's participation in the institutions of government and learning, how to pursue the national interests through those institutions of government that does not involve pursuing a narrow party political agenda but where at the same time since the ANC is the majority party it has to act on the basis of its principles and on the basis of its values. And what that balance is is not clear to me but at least some review of that. But, again, it's not only the ANC, it's the other parties as well.
POM Is there a corollary of that that at the moment there is a propensity on the part of the ANC to see ANC positions or priorities as national priorities as distinct from being party priorities?
WJ There is one, I think, excellent example of how the ANC priorities became national priorities, became the priorities of the government, and that's the RDP. It was a really excellent example of what it is, I think. I am saying that because everybody jumped on board, everybody agreed with it and it really was a question of parties owning that programme. It's too bad it's gone.
POM I was going to ask you that.
WJ But that's one kind of example and if that was a user's model for how one deals with policy making in a whole variety of other areas then I think that will be very healthy. The third point I was going to make had to do with party capacities and you raised the issue of finance.
POM We'll get to that in a more detailed way.
WJ I think it would be in the national interest if everybody appreciated much more the role of opposition parties and the role of strong opposition parties rather than weaker opposition parties. I think it's in the ANC's interests to have a strong Pan Africanist Congress rather than to have a weak one so that that point of view can be aired, it can be made, it can be effectively backed up by policy options. It's important not only for the PAC but for the other minority parties as well and in order to do that those parties have to be resourced and right now we don't have - I mean our system of resourcing parties, which is why the finance question is important, is for the most part unregulated and where there is no structured system of providing state finance to parties even for the running of campaigns. But not to get into that discussion now but to say that the question of actually beginning to appreciate the fact that it's better to have strong parties than weak parties, that it's not in our interest to have weak parties.
POM Before we get into realignment of, or when people talk of realignment of political parties, I want to talk for a moment about what I might call the 'comfortability' zone and that is that a party that comes to power enjoys power, enjoys exercising it, becomes comfortable in the use of that power and at a practical level would find it difficult to accept the fact that it's better for the system as a whole if they strengthen opposition to their own party. In fact the more comfortable you become the more likely you are to believe that in fact to identify the party interest with the national interest. Is there a possibility of that happening? With the withdrawal of the National Party is the ANC settling into understanding the uses of power and becoming comfortable with the uses of power in a way that it hadn't before and where there weren't barriers or a more watchdog-like situation?
WJ I think there is certainly that potential and there's a potential for complacency, there's a potential for minimising debate and in fact I would say that certainly compared to its earlier days the ANC is less of a debating body today than it was a year ago, than it was certainly five years ago. And a lot of that is surfacing around the macro-economic framework as you've seen and in fact that macro-economic framework was introduced, there was no discussion for the most part within the ANC. I think that people in the lower ranks, middle ranks of the ANC, are extremely unhappy about it. You had a fax sent from Trevor Manuel, from the Minister of Finance, to Ebrahim Rasool, to Peter Marais' office by mistake, telling him not to, essentially, criticise the macro-economic framework. You saw that. So there is an emergent tendency to actually minimise debate. I think one of the hallmarks of the ANC as an organisation was the degree of debate and openness and I think it's actually unfortunate that that space is narrowing down and it's narrowing down rapidly. So it's within the ANC and then it's between the ANC and other parties as well.
POM Do you find with regard to the latter that debate is also constrained by, again it's a tendency that I've certainly noticed and talked with ANC people about, to take criticism coming from mainly white parties or mainly white controlled media or white academics as having a hidden racist agenda so that people who have legitimate criticisms to make rather than exposing themselves to charges of being racist simply shrug their shoulders and say it in private rather than taking it into the public forum?
WJ It's such a complicated, difficult conundrum, it really is unfortunate because in part what the ANC says, and it doesn't speak with one voice on this, but what comes in part from the ANC is cracked, that there are people and there are institutions in this country who have been part of a certain kind of political tradition and that they are reacting to the ANC without actually engaging in what the ANC is actually doing and a lot of times they would simply say things that confirm prejudices, and that might be seen as racist and often is on the one hand. On the other hand I think the ANC as an organisation has been learning but over the last year it shouldn't be so damn paranoid, it shouldn't take things so personally and it shouldn't see criticism as an affront to their historical morality around the struggle because it's often, "How dare you say these things about us because look we hold the moral high ground," and so on. The game has changed. They are in government, they run a government, that government is accountable and so they need to step back as well and just let it happen and not take it so personally because it's very important to keep that critical space open.
There has to be a place where people, regardless of colour or whatever, are able to say things because, as we know, criticism and accountability are at the heart of having the capacity to renew political orders. I recently read Gorbachev's memoirs and the Soviet Union is not South Africa and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is not the ANC and so on and so on and so on, but one of the key points that comes out of that interpretation of Soviet history is the fact that if a party settles into control and the exercise of power over a long period of time and it closes down spaces for public criticism and public comment that party becomes increasingly incapable of renewing itself, of generating new ideas and doing the sorts of things that are required in this sort of changing global environment to make sure that a country like South Africa is successful. I make that comparison with some caution because there are two different kinds of settings and histories and so on, but I think there would be a real danger, I hope the ANC would recognise this, that by settling into a comfortable zone of executing its power and closing down spaces for criticism and debate it's not serving its own long term interest as the governing party and that self-realisation I think ought to happen. I think there are people within the ANC who are worried about it.
POM Was there something you were going to add to that?
WJ I was just going to say that I think part of the constraint that's emerging has to do with holding this country together and I think there is a fear within the ANC that there is a potential for this country to fragment and they need to exercise governance, hold this country together, hold its people together and move in a given direction. I would applaud that and I admire it. I think that ought to happen but it has to happen not by instruction, it has to happen by leadership and I think that leadership is certainly vested in the President, he should certainly show that. But I don't think that leadership quality translates downwards quite to the same extent. Some people have said to me that when you make distinctions like that you are trying to drive a wedge between the President and the rest of the ANC. Really I am not trying to do that at all, but just to say that just to emphasise the importance.
POM That itself is almost a comment on the lack of self-confidence that should accompany, that wouldn't inform critical debate.
WJ Well yes, I think that if there is greater political leadership demonstrated across the board modelled after the President, and there are ministers, including ANC ministers, who certainly have shown that capacity for leadership, leadership by results, leadership by example and so on, then the temptation to exercise leadership by instruction would lessen.
POM So in the last year or so, you mentioned there was less debate within the ANC than there was a year ago and certainly less than five years ago. Looking at the overall political scene would you think that there is less debate today than there was, say, when parliament opened in May 1994? Has the quality and amount of substantive debate diminished rather than increased?
WJ As a bland statement I would say yes it has decreased, that there has been a decline both in terms of the scale of the debate and in terms of the quality of the debate. But that's a blunt statement and I would qualify it a hundred times depending on what issue we're talking about.
POM Bringing the discussion around to political realignments, and I'll put this in three ways, there are those who would say that in the short to medium term, whatever that is for a generation, what you need is a strong ANC government that commands a large majority because that is the only way to effect fundamental change, say, to engage in transformational politics; that if you had a more effective multi-party system, i.e. in terms of there being stronger opposition or even divisions of the ANC splitting into a Workers' Party or just whatever, that the competition would become electoral and politics would become electoral-driven rather than transformational-driven and that that would be to the detriment of the development of the country as a whole. Where do you see the merits in either argument's standing?
WJ The ANC has shown itself capable of taking on the politics of transformation in a number of important areas affecting the lives of ordinary people in this country. It has certainly showed itself capable in the area of water affairs, it has shown itself capable in the area of health, it's shown itself capable in the area of education to some degree, that's only been close to three years. Over a short period of time it has in fact taken on a wide variety of transformation issues and I think that it probably is in the interests of this country to have the ANC in charge of that transformation agenda. I do think that in some areas there has been very little progress made and where the transformation process has been stalled and one certainly can't speak about the ANC as a party in a homogenous fashion when it comes to transformation politics in its way but it's shown some leading indications. What one would want is a commitment to a transformation agenda across the board, like the RDP. You actually do require that cross-party commitment and where you keep that commitment no matter what happens in terms of a realignment of parties. My own sense is, and I hope I don't eat my words in two years time, but I don't think that the ANC, the alliance has taken some strain but I think the cement is still there. I noted with interest Tony Blair's comments about the transformation of the Labour Party and its relationship with trade unions but I think, certainly in the shorter term I don't think there's a chance of a major rupture in that alliance and so I think certainly till 1999 it will remain relatively intact.
POM Post-1999, everyone has agreed there would be no crack-up before 1999 but is there a knowledge that even if you have your differences that solving your differences within the umbrella of an organisation that is in power is a lot different from divesting oneself of that power and then trying to resolve the differences?
WJ I think that as a result of public opinion pressure, as a result of the way in which constituencies are tied into members of parliament and so on, that the ANC as a party would probably have to occupy the middle ground in terms of the public spread of opinion in order to secure the 1999 elections, and it's already doing that to some degree, and occupying the middle ground in particular around law and order questions and how we deal with crime in this country. I think that the present problem is that there's enormous pressure on the ANC to take a middle ground, to take a harder line, to not withdraw from human rights commitments but at least to make those commitments a bit more consistent with the capacity to police properly would feature in the run-up to the 1999 elections much more than it is now and I think that's going to put a lot of strain on the alliance. What one has to imagine is what's the fallout, what's the political fallout of taking the middle ground running up to the 1999 elections for the ANC as an organisation and as a party? And what does that mean for its alliance with the Communist Party and COSATU?
POM If you had a more competitive political system, the politics, despite what you said about everybody should have their commitment to RDP type politics and transformational politics, but that's like almost utopian. This is parties grabbing for -
WJ They don't behave that way.
POM On the ground don't behave that way. They use everything for electoral advantage with that kind of politicking that would be likely to emerge out of a 'normal' multi-party system, could that be detrimental or could it be detrimental to the necessary jump shocks that the country has to go through if it is to take off?
WJ No it could be very detrimental in the absence of a national political agenda. I guess it's a point I'll make again and again, we need a national political agenda that parties are committed to. They can differ in terms of their positioning on certain issues but we do need a national political agenda. We don't have one right now and I think in the absence of a national political agenda to have fiercer competition between smaller parties trying to jockey for advantage could be quite detrimental because it simply means that you will have competition over power without any mindfulness in terms of what the national agenda ought to be and what the interests of the majority of the population of this country ought to be.
POM Just to sum up this part of our discussion. On a scale of one to ten where one would be relatively unimportant and ten would be very important, where would you place the development of a strong effective multi-party system in terms of national priorities and use of resources?
WJ Probably, on a scale of one to ten? Probably put it at three.
POM That's where one is not important or not very important and ten where it's absolutely important?
POM OK. Moving around to the question of the financing of political parties, again the constitution provides for, in some vague way, the public financing of political parties and I suppose the issues that I want to address here, since you can move along with them rather than I taking one at a time, would be:
(i) what would your understanding of what public financing would be;
(ii) should it be public financing of the parliamentary work of political parties, of the day to day operations of political parties, of the electoral campaigns of political parties;
(iii) should it be a system that would be exclusively publicly financed or a combination of public donations and private contributions;
(iv) if it were the latter should there be requirements of disclosure and limits on the amounts that parties or individuals can take and from what sources should they be able to take, i.e. should foreign sources be eliminated?
That's just a small mouthful.
WJ A small mouthful. Well I think that campaigns should be financed from the public purse and it's obviously going to require legislation to introduce a system of public financing of political parties and that hasn't happened yet and so in order to turn the constitutional provision into reality we're going to need legislation and I had hoped that this would be included in the establishment of the Electoral Commission because that ought to be the mechanism and through the Electoral Commission a system of public financing for campaigns that political parties can draw on, including proto-parties, that is parties who are not presently in parliament who would want to run for the election in 1999 such as AZAPO. AZAPO has said it would like to do that but it doesn't have the resource base. And what the mechanism for that is in terms of detail I'm not quite sure but there can be a system of allocation. And against that there should be public disclosure of both public and private finance for campaigns because when taxpayers money is used there should be an imperative to in fact have a system of public disclosure.
The other area that worries me, I'm not sure what the mechanism is, but I think that because of our proportional representation system there is no imperative for members of parliament to take responsibility for constituencies other than their own commitment and there are a lot of committed MPs who actually do that but they don't have to and certainly if you are a majority party in parliament and they think that they are going to re-elected they don't have to. So I think it's quite important in terms of the electoral system to develop a system of accountability of representatives to their constituencies. It might be that through a system of public finance of constituencies and constituency offices and what have you as a member of parliament rather than as a party representative, parties can make their own contributions to actually have a system of financing there and that there would be accountability against that as well. I'm not sure whether we should want to go beyond that because I think parties have the right to raise their own money and there is a sense in which there is no compelling reason to have disclosure over general finance for parties.
POM So contributions from private sources shouldn't require disclosure and there should be no limit on the amount one can take from ...?
WJ In terms of general finance?
POM Yes, say if Liberty Life or whatever, gives ...
WJ Gives one million rand to the ANC as a present.
POM Should the ANC have to report that or should it say, well that's the way the cookie crumbles?
WJ I can take an ethical position on this. I think in the best of worlds parties should account for their finances but if we do that we are saying - parties occupy a space between civil society and the state, parties are accountable for the use of taxpayers money. That's what it's accountable for and it should be made accountable when that happens. If a private corporation makes a donation to the ANC of a million rand in order to finance help for its electoral campaign the ANC would be accountable for that as well. So that's the vice that ought to be used in order to compel accountability and, yes, you might put limits on it as well to say there's a ceiling in terms of campaign finance. But in terms of general finance if somebody wants to give the ANC a lot of money as a party and doesn't specify that this is for electoral campaigns then I think that's quite a different issue. So there's a question about how does one practically go about enforcing party accountability around finance and I think the practical mechanism is through providing legislation that governs the financing of campaigns by using taxpayers money. That's the mechanism and I am saying that I suppose an approach should be you begin with the electoral campaigns and you begin with constituency funding and you might be able to build on that over time.
POM Now the constitution also says that the public financing should be proportionate and equitable which in the current situation sounds contradictory in the sense that if you have or secure 70% of the vote and you therefore say on a proportionate basis I am entitled to 70% of the public funds, it's proportional but it certainly isn't equitable.
WJ If you want to translate that commitment into a technical exercise it's possible simply by, for example, providing all parties with a base level of 40% to 50% so all the parties get the same amount up to 50% of what's available and the balance is distributed on the basis of representation in parliament, you would have both. Now what the balance is between those two things I think is something that is quite tricky but it's possible to do that.
POM On the question of media use, again should public media be made available to all parties in terms of a block of time or should parties be allowed to supplement their free use of public media with paid advertising?
WJ Now in an ideal world they should either have no access or they should all have equal access. In the real world I think there will always be requests and the pressure for those parties that are better resourced to get more time and I think that should be resisted. I do think they should have equal time.
POM In the absence of some fairly substantial public assistance to political parties to develop themselves and get their messages out is there any real possibility of an effective multi-party system developing within the constraints we've talked about; that is that there's not going to be a division in the ANC in the short run?
WJ On a scale of one to ten?
POM No, well there are two questions. One is, can you have the development of a multi-party system itself, an effective one in the absence of adequate public finance being directed to the parties? That's one. And then two is, how important is the question of public financing of political parties on a scale of one to ten at this point in time?
WJ All right, I would say that it's very important to have a system of checks and balances and a system whereby smaller parties in fact increase their capacity in order to have an effective multi-party system. That's actually quite crucial and I think that that's something that ought to receive attention. In terms of the urgency around public financing I think it's very urgent. I really think we should sort that out and on a scale of one to ten as a matter of importance I would put it at ten. I think it is critical for this country and it's critical for an effective multi-party system in order to have a system of public financing for political parties that are actually detailed in terms of where it's targeted at and by that route introducing a system of accountability. I think it's crucial.
POM So if it comes to the use of the marginal rand, there is that one extra rand left that can be used either for housing or electrification or water purification purposes or that can be used to help publicly finance political parties, go into the financing of political parties, where at this point of time should the priority lie?
WJ I don't know how much it will cost actually. I don't think an enormous amount of money. We're not talking about billions of rands here, so that's one point. I haven't seen any kind of costing but I would imagine it's not going to be that expensive a thing to do and in any event one can use public financing as a way of priming a revenue collection infrastructure within parties which presently doesn't exist in an equal way, so you could stimulate that kind of fund-raising in parties by using some taxpayers money, not a hell of a lot. In terms of priorities, if I was to choose, this is not entirely a zero-sum game, but I would say that serving the development needs of ordinary people is more important, it's the most important priority in fact. But in order to deliver on those things you do need a much more effective system of governance and to get a much more effective system of governance you might have to spend some more money in order to do that, and so hard choices, I would go for development funding first.
POM Is it, to your knowledge, in the circles you move in and the people you talk to, are these issues that surface or are they peripheral issues? Are people more concerned about a lot of other pressing things?
WJ I think at senior levels of government it is actually a concern and it is pressing. Middle to lower levels, people are caught up in their own important activities and agendas and the sort of bigger issues fall off the table. That's why debate is important because that's why it seems so important to have a space whereby people can be drawn out of their parochial, important concerns into a larger discussion about these things, which simply emphasises the importance of debate once again.
POM Finally, on IDASA's agenda where would issues like these two, attempts to develop a strong multi-party system and trying to further the public financing of political parties, where on your agenda would that lie?
WJ It's very high on the agenda. We have a programme that deals with questions of governance and it is one of our most important programmes so the question of governance, the question of party finance, the question of how the system actually operates and how to play a constructive role in furthering an effective system of governance and a multi-party system is high on our agenda.
POM OK Wilmot, thanks very much. Very interesting.