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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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

22 Oct 1996: Gordhan, Pravin

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POM     Mr Gordhan, to begin, the constitution provides for a democratic multi-party system. First, how would you define what a democratic multi-party system is, that is what a viable democratic multi-party system is? And two, do you think that it has certain elements or features that are indispensable to its working?

PG     I suppose a multi-party system is one which is pursuant to a Bill of Rights which would afford political rights both individually and collectively to every citizen, a system which would allow for political parties to be formed, for political parties to compete in open elections, those elections being based on a universal franchise, the elections being either at a so-called local sphere of government, provincial sphere of government or national sphere of government, and one which would not easily allow the government of the day to disallow political parties or ban political parties as we would use that term in South Africa from existing or operating. Clearly at the same time the political party has to operate within the terms of the constitution and that's a constraint that political parties would have. The second part of your question?

POM     Are there certain elements or features of a multi-party democratic system that are indispensable to that system whether it is in South Africa or the UK?

PG     I must add though that limiting the conception of democracy to only political parties is troubling, that limiting the conception of multi-party democracy to the existence of a number of political parties is no longer the only criterion by which I think you should judge multi-partyism, that multi-partyism needs to incorporate a viable and vibrant role for civil society organisations or then political institutions. I don't think we have a perfect formula yet but perhaps as part of this research programme, if I might be as presumptuous as this, one needs to look for a formula which creates a balance, not necessarily an equitable balance but nonetheless a balance between political parties which increasingly articulate the views of narrow interest groups on the one hand and broader civil society on the other hand. So within the conception of multi-party democracy that, I think, increasingly needs attention and further development.

     But to come to your question about what are the crucial elements, clearly there has to be universal franchise. Secondly, any level of government which has institutions of representativity has to be fully elected on the universal franchise basis. Thirdly, those institutions need to have institutionalised and legalised forms of transparency and accountability. Fourthly, there have to be regular elections. Fifthly, there has to be a viable way of dismissing corrupt politicians or of dismantling a non-viable institution. For example, you could have a local government municipality which takes patently wrong decisions. Somewhere along the line one has to be able to say, even short of its full three, four or five year term, that you call it a day and go back to seek a new mandate from your electorate. And clearly multi-partyism has to have other institutions as well, not just the political, such as in our case a Human Rights Commission, a Public Protector, a vibrant media both print and electronic and so on.

POM     What about the possibility of there being an alternative government, i.e. that you don't have, as you possibly could have here at least in the short to medium run, one party that is elected, fairly elected in every election to government so that the possibilities of there being a change in government are remote and very slight? Can a true multi-party system operate in circumstances such as that or must there at some point be the reasonable possibility of alternative governments?

PG     Well change for the sake of change is never good change but, yes, there must be the possibility for new parties to enter government and I know that in the South African context that becomes a difficult proposition because in a sense you don't have any alternative party to the ANC which is presenting a viable challenge both to the ANC but also more importantly reflects the aspirations of the vast majority of South Africans and therefore you get yourself into a bind. But the second element is that a change in government might not be the only criterion by which you assess the viability of a multi-party system. You might also want to look at, even where you have a constant majority being obtained by a particular party for ten or fifteen years, whether the other institutions, social institutions are playing a viable role and whether effective power is distributed elsewhere in society and not located within the structures of governance themselves only. I think those are the mechanisms that increasingly any viable democracy needs to look at.

POM     So would you say that in the case of South Africa that, given what you've said, one party that overwhelmingly reflects the aspirations of the majority of the people, the lack of a viable alternative is the road to making multi-party or even democracy more vibrant through strengthening other institutions than through attempting to perhaps artificially bolster parties that are reflective only of small proportions of the population?

PG     I'm a bit tired. When this comes to the last point of your question ...

POM     The last point is, one could say the route here to promote democracy would be one to, given the reality of what exists, is to put resources into strengthening civil society, organs of civil society and the like, or one could say one could put resources into trying to strengthen other political parties so that they become stronger, so they are better able to articulate and get their message out, better able to compete.

PG     I've got a problem with the latter proposition which is that you could artificially provide funds to a political party that has no support in the population. So if you take the ACDP as having two representatives in our parliament today of 400, providing them with more funds might well give them the capacity to campaign better, etc., but is not necessarily consistent with the objective support that they would enjoy in society. I would question whether that is necessarily promoting democracy. On the other hand providing funds for political parties, from my limited exposure to that field of interest, might have other benefits such as not making political parties victims of their funders and their desires such as creating a more level playing field on which political parties meet each other. But at some stage on the one hand you require the funding formula, if you want to call it that, to reflect the objective reality of support that a political party would have. On the other hand you require some formula which would create a level of empowerment, if you can call it that, for the smaller parties to give them a sufficient critical mass, if you want to put it that way, to be able to play out their role of mobilising support both for themselves but playing an effective opposition role. How you strike that balance is obviously something that you are enquiring into.

POM     Do you think that development of a viable, leaving aside the civil organs of society, just within the political context, do you think that the development of a multi-party system would be contingent upon some political realignment, principally some realignment within the ANC itself where you might have two parties that reflect different values of the aspirations of the majority of the people and then that would either form coalitions with other parties or whatever?

PG     In the short term it's unlikely that you're going to get that kind of development. I think the desire for optimal unity within the ranks for the ANC, but also a fair amount of consensus would still continue to exist notwithstanding existing tensions between people with maybe slightly different perspectives on a particular matter for at least the foreseeable future, at least up to 1999, and in that sense I don't think that you are going to get any massive realignment. Also the last 2½ years of experience is showing that your past is not very easily detached from your present and if you look at the so-called opposition parties at least three of them, the DP, the NP and the Freedom Front, are not classic opposition parties. They are parties who are minority parties reflecting minority public opinion and sectors of our South African society but who have consistently played the opposition role more from the perspective of safeguarding past interests rather than putting forward an alternate vision and whatever their claims might be, in the course of our day-to-day work in legislating and discussing policy matters in portfolio committees in parliament, very little is emerging from the other parties as a viable alternative to what the ANC as government has to put forward. So multi-partyism has to be linked in a sense, in the South African context, with a change in the mode of operation of the so-called opposition parties. You could actually be providing them with funding merely to make them stronger to demand separate education or continue the privileges of the past and so on.

POM     Sorry, you were saying that you could actually be funding parties to maintain ...?

PG     Maintain the status quo or return to positions of the past. So if you look at the Constitutional Assembly process and look at the key issues on which we had problems towards the end, it's education, it's the labour relations question, the language question and in the case of the Freedom Front the so-called Cultural Council/volkstaat question. Now all of those are not matters of national interest, they are a matter of national group interest and it was advocacy on behalf of specific groups which resulted in a sense in a stand-off. I just want to point out that even if you look at the Schools' Bill that has just been processed in parliament, if you look at land legislation, I am sure there are many other examples if one had the time to go into them, the opposition has largely been around that. So I would think that the opposition role in this parliament performed by at least these sorts of parties 90% of the time is one in tune with saying, "How do I sustain my old perspective?" as opposed to saying, "How do I make you more comfortable, how do I make your processes more transparent, how do I ensure that government doesn't become more closed, how do I make sure that parliament becomes a more viable institution in terms of holding the executive accountable?" which is the classic role that the opposition should be playing. Often their conception comes from their past experience which is that opposition means you must ask questions in parliament, engage in interpolations and then in debate which nobody listens to, attack the government of the day.

     Now surely multi-partyism, if it's to be effective, has to for a start have a vibrant parliament which can say to the executive we disagree with you on this question and let's, like you have in the United States, not necessarily have stand-offs but have a tension which leads to greater creativity, better legislation, better policies than you would have otherwise. Now none of the so-called opposition parties are playing that role. The ANC in a sense is its own opposition because it's from within the ANC that over the last 2½ years you had tensions between parliament and the executive, between committees and ministers, and you've had the transformation of parliament to the extent where it is as open as it is today, I would argue.

POM     So on a scale of one to ten, given South Africa as it is today and then given what you would ideally see as the role a multi-party system should play in a democracy, how important on the country's priorities is the development of a strong multi-party system of the latter type, the type you've talked about?

PG     I think we've barely started with the transformation of the democratic institutions and for that reason it is one of the top priorities, that unless we get all the structures of governance operating on as broad an interpretation to multi-partyism that one can give it, the hard fought democracy that we have had could slip and in that sense, no, it's an important issue. But the question is what content do you give multi-partyism? And that's where I'm sure there's a lot of room for debate.

POM     On content?

PG     Yes.

POM     What should the government be doing given that the constitution says, "The country shall be founded on the basis of a multi-party democracy"? What should the government be doing to encourage the development along the lines of the content you've talked about?

PG     There are two key elements in what I have talked about. The one is having more parties than one. Now the government can't do anything positive about creating more parties. What it should not do is do anything negative that would restrain parties from growing and therefore we should not have legislation or executive actions of the type that we have had in the past. In other words if parties want to develop, they want to grow, they want to proliferate well that's fine. Does it mean that parties need to be funded? Again, I have very limited understanding of the debates and issues around funding for political parties but on the balance of the information that I have it's a better way to get parties functional than for them to be, as I said earlier, tied to the purse strings of particular sponsors. And perhaps we can reach a stage soon where even the funding processes are more open than they are at the moment. I'm not sure exactly how they operate at the moment. But that's part one.

     Part two would be generating a space for civil society groups who want to represent particular interests, who are able to in a sense find forums where they can engage with government and you're going to get them engaging around very narrow issues at times and at times there will be broad consensus amongst themselves on what they actually want. But whatever it is there needs to be the space to talk, to articulate opposition or support, to engage more importantly in a constructive process of generating policy which can meet as many requirements of different interest groups as possible.

POM     Are you familiar with at the moment what the current laws are regarding the funding of political parties or have you just a vague idea?

PG     What I am familiar with is the 1994 election and the Electoral Act then which allowed for a formula, I think there was one rand per something, per voter, yes one rand per voter who voted for you in that election was what each party got as a contribution from the IEC fund set aside for political parties. So that's the one formula I am familiar with.

POM     So if there were public financing of political parties would you see it (i) that it should be confined to the parliamentary activities of the party so the party can operate more effectively in parliament, (ii) that it should provide for the day-to-day running of parties so the party can grow and develop and get its message out or (iii) that it should take the form of assistance during elections especially that smaller parties who can't raise much funds privately have a better opportunity of competing? Or should it be a lump sum of some description given to each party to use as it wishes for any of those three?

PG     I need to think that through more carefully. I haven't really entered that debate and this is the first - I can see the options very clearly. The narrowest part that one could follow is that it should only be for election purposes. But in any event in the parliamentary context after the 1994 elections each party also has a caucus fund set aside for it on the basis of its proportional support from parliamentary funds. So of the four types that you've mentioned there are two in existence already. What's not in existence is either the lump sum formula or non-electoral support, funding support for parties.

POM     Now the constitution says the support will be proportional and equitable which would seem to be contradictory in a sense that if you get 70% of the vote you should get 70% of the funds, it's helping to reinforce your position of strength rather than helping smaller parties. Again, funding, so is it your assumption at the moment that the 1999 election will be funded on more or less the same basis as the 1994 elections, that is that funds would be made available?

PG     For electoral purposes. As I am saying, already without this becoming a conscious design, parties do get assistance in parliament and they get assistance for electoral purposes. That's the first point I want to make. The second is your question of equitable. Already if you look at formulae that we use in parliament, for example if you have a committee of six, the ANC won't get two thirds of that committee, it will end up with half, sometimes less than half because you accommodate at least two or more members of the so-called minority parties in any group that you get going. So equitable means more in this context that you don't get totally left out of the process. For example, equitable would mean that you can send your one member to any of the committees that sit in parliament, the portfolio committees or standing committees, you won't be disallowed, merely because you only have one member in parliament, from doing that. So equitable has many other applications apart from the strict mathematical one which is implied in that formulation. On the more general point it clearly is an issue that we need to review and I think in the negotiations on the new constitution we said that this is a matter that we would look into. That's probably why you're doing your work, and people like ourselves would be interested in hearing more about what are the options, what are the pros, what are cons, what are international precedents in this particular regard, in order that one can apply one's mind to that.

POM     What kind of priority do you think the public financing of parties is?

PG     It's hard to say. Obviously the priority now is to deliver to the people.

POM     Well on a scale of one to ten where do you think it would lie?

PG     It depends what you've got to trade it off against, but at a political level in terms of institutional development clearly it's in the upper five in that particular category of expenditure.

POM     But it's something that a lot of thought hasn't yet been given to. Certainly if people like yourself haven't thought about it not many other people have. It's not something that people say this is a pressing priority, we must have public funding mechanisms in place.

PG     Well we rather do it now and get this process going so that by late 1997 we can have clear answers 18 months before we actually get down to the next election. In the past it's been done in a kind of crisis mode. Now at least it can be well researched and documented and proper decisions taken.

POM     Again just your own opinion, should public funding be alongside the raising of funds privately?

PG     It normally is I think.

POM     Do you think there should be any limit on what parties can raise from individuals, companies or foreign sources?

PG     Ultimately I think you've got to start a public debate about the kind of democracy we want and to see how best you create level playing fields, yes. The ANC found itself in a position of disadvantage over the last period. The so-called South African establishment was pretty much pro the party that was in government before. So you can allow a few years grace but after a while you've got to find an equitable way of dealing with that question.

POM     But for the moment parties should be allowed to raise funds from whatever sources they can get them from?

PG     Everybody is scrambling for the same small piece of cake.

POM     Disclosure should be compulsory?

PG     I haven't looked at that question again carefully, but increasingly the movement should be towards disclosure. It might not be immediate, parties might want time to adjust their internal mechanisms in order to cope with that requirement but ultimately should move in that direction.

POM     And media use, public media? Is this an area where each party should receive a fixed block of public time regardless of size or should there be some principle of proportionality applied there too?

PG     Well the same principle of proportionality versus equitability. So you can end up with zero time depending on your percentage support in the elections. So you start with the minimum and then say every party shall get X minutes, but then the proportionality principle applies.

POM     I know you're rushing. I wish you had more time.

PG     Are you Cape Town based?

POM     I can come back again.

PG     I must apologise. I didn't realise how long a time we needed.

POM     OK.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.