Robert Michels, a German sociologist with renowned political distinction, first put forth the idea of ‘The Iron Law of the Oligarchy’ in academic circles over seventy years ago. Michels was of the opinion that all organizations, regardless of their political ideologies or their position on the political spectrum, were nothing more than masquerading oligarchies. He placed particular emphasis on institutions that made claims to be ‘democratic’ in their intentions, saying that “The notion of the representation of popular interests, a notion to which the great majority of democrats cleave with so much tenacity and confidence, is an illusion engendered by a false illumination,” (Summers 1984 ). The very nature of democratic organizations, such as political parties or trade unions, lend themselves to bureaucratic tendencies (Summers 1984 ). It is this perspective, this identification of a conceptual dissonance in politics, that ‘democratic’ systems and organizations create environments that allow characteristically undemocratic/oligarchy-esque practices and behavior to flourish, that creates the basis of the argument presented in this essay. While it almost exclusively occurs in ‘democratic’ states, the system of one-party dominance is definitively undemocratic/oligarchy-esque, and poses more harm to a country’s politics than good. This essay will aim to prove this, through a careful analysis of the advantages and disadvantages this one party-dominant system has had in the context of a post-Apartheid South Africa.
Theoretical preliminaries: Factors that enhance South African one party dominance
The preliminaries of this argument against one party dominance, involve firstly defining one party dominance for the purpose of this essay. One party dominance can be defined as “a country where the political landscape is perpetually overshadowed by a single dominant political party that wins consecutive elections and governs for a prolonged period” (Khambuhle 2019). In the South African context, this definition makes reference to the African National Congress Party, as it has won six national elections at the time of this essay, and each time was won with the overwhelming majority of votes, and has been the ruling party for over twenty-five years (Khambuhle 2019). For the sake of contextualization, it is important to briefly analyze the political history that lead to the ANC’s political dominance in South Africa, as well the political environment in which the ANC exercises its dominance presently.
The political period before South African democracy, and the ANC in power, was called ‘Apartheid’, which referred to the institutionalization and inclusion of discriminatory and racist policies into the very fabric of South African politics (Endoh 2015). This horrificly racist ideology subjugated black persons in South Africa for centuries, before the ANC, along with other activist parties, fought for and achieved the first democratic elections in 1994, as well as a complete eradication of all Apartheid laws (Endoh 2015). This piece of South African history is important to the content of this essay, because it explains the position the ANC plays, not only in South Africa’s political landscape, but in the cultural and social fabric of the country as well. This equation of the ANC to the end of Apartheid is an integral part of why they have achieved and maintained such political dominance in South Africa, and these unique circumstances influence the way one party dominance is presented in the South African political environment. This link is integral in forming and contextualizing the main argument of this essay: why this dominance is ultimately damaging to South Africa.
The advantages of one party dominance:
In the interest of remaining objective, and providing a balanced commentary on the subject matter, it is important to explore the various benefits that exist as a result of one party dominance, with a special interest in analyzing how these advantages present themselves in the South African political landscape. The generalized advantages of one party dominance include: quick decision making (theoretically, the party in power acts as homogenous entity in decision making, employing the unification of ideals to make political decisions quickly and easily, a characteristic that is undeniably useful to developing countries, which often do not have the benefit of time when the need for a decision arises) (De Jager 2009); centralized decision-making (because the decisions are coming from one source, i.e. the ruling party, the decisions made are more focused and direct, implying a better rate of success) (De Jager 2009); and finally its unique applicability to developing countries (it is often suggested that developing countries, while in the process of ‘developing’, are more suited to unified control that the one party dominant system employs, and that more parties and political voices would only lengthen the period in which a country stayed ‘developing’) (Monyani 2018 ).
To analyze whether or not these ‘advantages’ are present in South African one party dominance, is to take a closer look at its current political climate. It could be said that the ANC is ‘quick’ to make decisions for the country, having effective and well developed strategies for crises. For example, the vaccine rollout strategy to combat the Covid-19 pandemic was developed quite quickly (Diseases 2021), though the ANC seemed unable to act upon it; South Africa has an exceptionally low rate of vaccines at the time of this essay (37.50% of all adults, according to the latest vaccines statistics) (Government 2021). This inability to adhere to the time constraints and goals set forth in their plans, as illustrated in the Covid-19 example, can be characterized as an ongoing problem for the ANC, with factors such as corruption, mismanagement, or insufficient resources heavily affecting the degree to which their strategies are implemented. Centralized decision making and the unification of ideals also do not apply to the ANC, as their party has already had two major divisions that resulted in party splits, within their short period of power. The first took place in 2008 and resulted in the formation of the Congress of the People party, and the second took place in 2013, that resulted in the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters party (Khambuhle 2019). And finally, to address the idea that an one-party dominant system supports the quicker development of a third-world country, within the period of time that the ANC has been in power, South Africa’s development has made no substantial progress, even being rated as ‘non-investment grade’ or ‘junk status’ by the Standard & Global Rating system in 2020 (Wasserman 2020). To summarize, whatever perceived ‘advantages’ there are to a one party dominant system, they are not present in the South African political environment.
The disadvantages of one party dominance:
There are many disadvantages to the one party dominance, but this paragraph will only offer those that are most prevalent in the current political environment of South Africa. While one party dominant systems occur in democracies, more specifically countries with democracies that are in the process of consolidation, this system gives rise to characteristics that seem, at worst, undemocratic, and at best, heavily affecting the quality of democracy (De Jager 2009). Examples of this include: lack of accountability (a democracy is maintained through agents of accountability, which include prominent opposition parties, of which the ANC has none) (De Jager 2009); limiting the scope of political and civil society; and the exchange of civil and political liberties for the provision of basic necessities (De Jager 2009), which is exceptionally prevalent in South Africa, as proven by a recent survey that suggests a significant percentage of participants were willing to “sacrifice democratic procedures for the promise of law and order and improved services” (Lanegran 2001). Furthermore, it acts as a highly effective breeding ground for corruption, (as a result of the lack of agents of accountability), a problem that has been plaguing the South African political environment for years, as is illustrated by the exceptionally high ranking South Africa has achieved in the Corruption Perceptions Index (44th out of 195 countries) (Transparency International 2020). The one party dominance system of politics does more harm than good to the country it operates in and entails many disadvantages in South Africa since the ANC’s rise to power.
This essay’s main aim was to prove that the political system of one party dominance carries more disadvantages than advantages for its host country, through the context of a post-Apartheid South Africa. It analyzed whether or not the theoretical benefits of the one party dominant system were illustrated in present day South Africa, determining that they are not. In addition, it explored all of the harm the one party dominant system has done to the South African political climate, and posed questions for South Africa’s future as a political entity.
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