CAPE TOWN — The word "opposition" is defined as antagonism, contrast, or resistance. But a new definition could apply in South Africa: shambles.
The country's three-year-old democracy works in most ways that a democracy should. South Africa has a functioning parliament, and an independent media and judiciary. Its record for accountability and openness is considered spotty but acceptable.
But where is an effective opposition? There's the rub: There isn't one. Under the shadow of President Nelson Mandela's monolithic African National Congress, rivals have slunk into disarray.
Having won 63 percent of the votes in April 1994 elections, the ANC is expected to do well in the next vote in 1999. This has left the opposition pondering what it can do. The past month has seen a sometimes bizarre series of courtings between parties contemplating new alliances that could redraw the political landscape.
Polarizations between left and right and black and white have faded. Those out of power are willing to join with sometimes incongruous bedfellows to try to push the ANC out. And the ANC is keen to bring other parties into its government of national unity to co-opt its critics.
"It's the politics of the desperate," says Susan Booysen, a political science professor at Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg. "The polls show that these opposition parties are not growing ... so they are seeking greater alliances."
How to realign the political scene is of particular concern to the two biggest opposition parties, the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party and the National Party (NP). Inkatha has chosen to remain in the government of national unity. But the NP, which once ruled under apartheid for decades, left Mr. Mandela's government last year to create a viable opposition.
That has proved elusive. Neither party seems able to expand from its traditional ethnic base. Many political analysts are skeptical of the NP's talk about forming a new movement aimed at gaining backing beyond its traditional Colored (mixed-race) and Afrikaner constituencies.
The two parties are also unlikely to consider merging, mindful of an unsuccessful attempt at an alliance before the 1994 elections. But NP leader F.W. De Klerk has reportedly approached leaders of Inkatha and the Democratic Party (DP), a tiny but vocal party representing mainly affluent white professionals.
This spurred Mandela to make overtures to the DP and another minority party, the black-militant Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), about joining his coalition government, even though the two between them have only 12 seats in the 400-member parliament.
The PAC is unlikely to accept Mandela's offer. DP leader Tony Leon said earlier this month that he was trying to reconcile joining the government with remaining in opposition to it. "We are aware that taking up a Cabinet post can have dangerous implications for an opposition party," he said.
Mandela himself speaks of the need for "good" opposition members who could contribute to building a new nation by employing their talents and vision within the government.
Analysts say Mandela's task is to freshen up his party's image before the 1999 vote. Although still popular, the ANC has failed to deliver on fighting crime, building houses, or creating jobs. Mandela will step down after this term, and no other ANC candidate can hope to rival his charisma.
Ultimately, the real opposition to the ANC may come from the party itself after 1999, some analysts say. At present the party leadership has little tolerance for dissent from within, and this may eventually lead to formation of a breakaway party.
Another source of opposition might lie with unions. They were a partner of the ANC during the struggle against white rule. But the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions has found its alliance with the ANC increasingly difficult, and this may ultimately lead to the formation of an opposition labor party.