Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2004-10-13 Reporter: Linda Ensor

Opposition Savours Rare Treat of Influencing Government



Business Day

Date 2004-10-13


Linda Ensor

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Opposition politics can be a thankless business and a discouraging one , especially in SA where the prospects of opposition parties taking power in the near future are rather remote, if not nonexistent.

Moments of satisfaction, however, do arise, rare though they may be, a s when an opposition party's dogged pursuit of corruption or the exposure of irregularities results in action or an inquiry. Or when it holds government to account for nonperformance.

The trial of Schabir Shaik on charges of fraud and corruption, which has kicked off in Durban, was as much due to the relentless pursuit of the truth behind the arms deal by opposition parties as to the sterling work of the Scorpions. It is significant that two opposition politicians the former chairman of Parliament's standing committee on public accounts, Gavin Woods, and Independent Democrats leader Patricia de Lille could both be called as witnesses in the trial .

Lobbying against contentious legislation in Parliament has also had positive results.

And then there are moments when opposition policies are taken up by government. While the ruling party will always proclaim new policy developments to be the logical outcome of its own previous policies, the result of internal debate or the simple recognition of realities, the fact that opposition policies sometimes do filter through into official government programmes is an encouraging sign that the debate was worth it after all.

The dynamics of the interaction between the ruling and opposition parties takes place on the terrain of ideology, which sets the parameters for the exchange of ideas. If it now appears a debate is opening up between the African National Congress (ANC) and the opposition, as Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Tony Leon believes, this may be because the ANC is, ideologically, moving closer to the DA in its conception of the nature of the capitalist system SA should have.

Leon has welcomed the ANC's cautious readiness to begin a debate "on formerly sacred topics such as job-crushing labour laws and the failures of black economic empowerment ". He says it is beginning to consider ideas long propounded by the DA. "Many of these proposals, such as a two-tier labour market and a relaxation of regulations on small business, closely mirror DA proposals, which the ANC previously dismissed as something akin to either heresy or apostasy," Leon wrote in his online newsletter, SA Today, last week.

"It is clear that a window of opportunity for debate on economic policy has opened."

If Leon perceives greater receptiveness on the part of the ANC to DA ideas, this could be because the ANC is jettisoning its social democratic ideas on labour law and economic regulation in favour of more laissez faire, neoliberal ones.

The pressures on the ruling party do not stem mainly from opposition parties, however. They stem from constituencies within the ANC itself. There is widespread dissatisfaction within the broader tripartite alliance with government's empowerment policies . The labour constituency wants a broader transformation, while aspirant entrepreneurs within the ANC feel they have been excluded from the spoils.

If this leads to a coincidence of views with those of the DA, the DA can claim to have the "right" policies, but should not necessarily overestimate its influence. On other issues such as privatisation, which the DA supports, government has swung in the opposite direction, favouring continued state involvement in the provision of essential services.

Time will tell if the ANC is moving towards a shared centre ground with the DA. If so, there are more likely to be overlaps in some areas and strong divergences in others. In any event, opposition politics would become more gratifying for the DA.

Which is not to say the DA hasn't influenced government policies in the past. The party has produced a document comprehensively listing issues where it appears government has adopted DA suggestions. These range from issues of education, defence, human rights, television broadcasting, the judiciary and language, to issues of governance and management of the economy.

The party has been, for example, at the forefront of the campaign for antiretroviral care for people with HIV/AID S. It called for 150000 police officers to be put on the street; subsequently, provision was made by government for the employment of an additional 16000 police officers between 2002 and 2006. The DA also claims to be the first party to propose legislation on the use of plastic bags.

The DA long argued for a single new Communications Act to separate the regulation of signal transmission from the regulation of content, and to abolish Telkom's monopoly over telecommunications. This year Communications Minister Ivy MatsepeCasaburri made announcements to this effect.

Small achievements, perhaps, in the grander scheme of things, but important nevertheless and ones which, perhaps, make it worthwhile to continue.

With acknowledgements to Linda Ensor and the Business Day.