Since 1948 when the National Party came to power and imposed apartheid, the South African opposition parties have rarely been genuine alternatives to the party of government. While there was a formal opposition to the Nationalists in parliament during the apartheid period, it often consisted of only one or two MPs. Perhaps the best known was Helen Suzman, who for years was virtually the only parliamentary voice opposed to the National Party government. With the end of apartheid and the opening of the suffrage to all South Africans irrespective of race in 1994, elections have tended to be a racial census, with the black population voting as a block for the African National Congress (ANC). With the demise of the old National Party, whites and coloureds (people of mixed race who are usually Dutch Reformed in religion) have turned to the Democratic Alliance (DA), which has been the official opposition in parliament. But, up to now, the party has not been able to win significant black support.
The local government elections of May 2011 indicate this may be changing. The DA won almost 24 percent of all the votes, while the ANC took about 62 percent. While the ANC remains overwhelmingly the largest party, the DA clearly attracted significant black support: whites and coloureds together are only about 18 percent of the total population, and the ANC has some traditional support among coloureds. The DA party chief Helen Zille, a white, former anti-apartheid activist, actively reached out for black support.
Why does this matter? The ANC is internally far more democratic than other large African political parties, and it has appealed across racial lines, though its electoral support is overwhelmingly black. But its critics accuse it of the ills that usually surface when one party dominates: cronyism and other forms of corruption, oversensitivity to criticism, and a growing distance from the mass of the voters. A viable opposition might sensitize the ANC to these tendencies. In the aftermath of the local government elections, some ANC leaders are already promising to be more responsive to their constituents. Although it is not clear that the DA can continue its evolution into a non-racial opposition party, the national elections of 2012 should provide a good indication. For now, the revived DA is good for South African democracy.