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Critical roles for strong opposition post 2024 elections

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Picture: Nqobile Mbonambi/African News Agency (ANA)/Taken on May 19, 2023 – IFP Secretary-General, SL Ngcobo, and IFP National Spokesperson, MM Hlengwa during a media briefing on the IFP’s state of rediness as they approach the 12-month mark prior to the upcoming 2024 Election. The good news is that there are ways in which opposition parties can exert pressure on the outright winners of the 2024 elections, the writer says.

By Isobel Frye

Being an opposition party is always an easier option than being the ruling party, because you just need to point out government’s failings to make headlines, rather than having to stand and deliver on your promises to your voters.

The results of the 2024 South Africa national and provincial elections are a topic of great discussion and anticipation. Will the incumbent ruling party be returned, or will there be a mushrooming of coalition parliaments? Will the fact that independent candidates will be allowed to run for the first time make a difference in emerging alliances and will this be good for the country?

The experiences of South Africa’s neighbours, particularly Lesotho and Madagascar, offer cautionary tales of what to be wary of in confrontational national government alliances, and many people in Gauteng at least can cite coalition dysfunction at a local government level where effective government seems to be the last concern amongst political leaders.

While there will be winners in next year’s election – and a possible shakeup in who the winners will be – there will always be minority opposition parties. How will these pan out for the country, and how can voters ensure that all political parties are actively involved in finding solutions over the next critical five years. Because, given the state of crisis of much of the national infrastructure in South Africa, the next five years of government action or inaction will be crucial.

From the tragic fatalities due to cholera in Gauteng and the Free State to crippling energy crisis in South Africa, the daily hunger, the unemployment and the deepening inequalities: the region and the world will wait to see whether the promise of multiparty democracy offers any real benefit to ordinary people, or whether the lust for power and access to resources is the only value that drives the leadership.

The 2024 elections will undoubtedly birth a variety of coalition forces, and the wildcard of possible independent candidates means that matter-specific alliances can promise exceptional policy leveraging in coming years, whether on energy matters, a universal basic income grant, or tax and interest rate policies. If minority forces pool their resources and expertise, they can increase their chances of advancing their manifesto promises. Issue-specific alliances can be employed in a variety of strategies including joint private members bills, question times and committee debates.

So, the good news is that there are ways in which opposition parties can exert pressure on the outright winners of the 2024 elections. The chance to show up government failing always provides great electioneering fodder for the next (2029) elections for opposition parties. For the voters, it will be good to have opposition parties hungry for a 2029 victory. Citizens should task hungry governments-in-waiting with active monitoring and oversight to boost the current pretty lacklustre oversight being performed, whether from the legislatures themselves or the increasingly obscure chapter nine institutions.

When aspirant electioneering parties unveil their promises in their 2024 election manifestos, concerned citizens should also ask politicians how they intend to do to honour their manifesto promises if they do not win an outright majority, whether as individual independents or as parties, because there are a variety of ways in which opposition members of Parliament can continue to pay a critical role in the next administration.

The first way is through a tactical use of private members bills. This process is provided for in sections 73 and 119 (provincial application) of the Constitution of South Africa. Bills are draft acts and are generally introduced into Parliament by ministers of the Cabinet after approval by Cabinet, for consideration, debate, and voting. But any member of Parliament can introduce bills (apart from bills that will have financial implications for government, known as ‘money bills’) if certain threshold criteria are met. The first ever private members bill was introduced in 2013 by the late Dr Mario Oriani-Ambrosini of the IFP. This bill related to proposed amendments to the National Credit Amendment Bill. It followed a ruling of the Constitutional Court in 2014 in a case also brought by the IFP. This is a fine example of an opposition party creatively pursuing a variety of legal strategies to advance a course of action that the ruling party did not itself drive.

Where there is a majority ruling party that can vote against a private member’s bill, the feasibility of victory of the passage of a private bill is low. But just by introducing draft bills that align with their manifesto promises opposition parties can shape the legislative agenda and bring attention to their proposed priorities and initiate debates on important issues. If there is a coalition government then political parties can effectively lobby other members of Parliament to support their private members’ bill.

The second way is through tactical use of Parliamentary Questions. Being an opposition party is always an easier option than being the governing party, because you just need to point to government’s failings and you don’t have to stand and deliver proven successes. By asking relevant and informed questions, parties can extract information from government. This highlights policy gaps or failures and gives opposition parties the chance to air their alternative solutions using strategic media coverage. Engaging in parliamentary debates that often follow the tabling of responses can allow opposition parties to remind voters of their election manifesto promises, challenge the government’s stance, and gain public support for their ideas and why these would be superior to the current weak policies under question.

Opposition parties should also actively use their presence at both portfolio and select parliamentary committees to scrutinise government policies and legislation. Portfolio Committees are the permanent committees that undertake oversight work at the National Assembly, while Select Committees perform the same task at the National Council of Provinces which is the second house of parliament.

Committee inquiries provide opportunities to thoroughly examine the implementation and impact of existing policies, identify areas of improvement, and propose amendments aligned with their manifesto promises. By actively participating in committee work, members can influence policy decisions and contribute to shaping legislation. Committee voting will almost always follow official party lines, but the committees are excellent places to pose the questions and have the executive called to answer.

Opposition parties can also use public consultations as effective ways to score points where the incumbent ruling party shows lacklustre performance. Effective public engagement can be done through hosting ‘town hall’ meetings or using online surveys through social media platforms to gather input from voters. Public consultations allow opposition parties to constantly refine their own policies, better understand public concerns, and incorporate popular opinions into their agenda. It is, however, also a very powerful organising tool for building party support in the run up to the next election.

Using all or any of the above, opposition parties can run highly effective public monitoring and evaluation campaigns of an incumbent government’s performance in implementing the ruling party’s manifesto promises. By regularly assessing and highlighting any gaps or failures, they can expose the ruling party’s shortcomings and strengthen their case for alternative policies.

And of course, opposition parties should use the diverse platforms of traditional and the growing avenues of social media as avenues for their ideas and their criticisms. Social media is a sure way to access the youth who, across ages, are disenchanted with the status quo.

So, to members of issue-specific interest groups, or just active and concerned citizens, there are indeed powerful ways in ensuring that your voice is heard. As the manifesto – season approaches, begin to test your muscle. The future, as they say, is in your hands. Make it matter.

Isobel Frye is Executive Director of the Social Policy Initiative

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