South Africa's many small parties highlight vibrant democracy

The variety and number of parties – 121 in total – who've registered for today's municipal elections is a good indication of the strength of South Africa’s 17-year-old democracy, political analysts say.

Elmond Jiyane/GCIS - Government Communication and Information System/Reuters
Former South African President Nelson Mandela (r.) is assisted by his granddaughter Ndileka Mandela (c.) and an IEC official as he casts his vote ahead of the May 18 elections, at his home in Houghton on May 16. South Africa will hold municipal elections nationwide on Wednesday in a vote seen as a gauge of support for President Jacob Zuma and his ruling African National Congress.

Sure, the long-ruling African National Congress (ANC) – the vaunted party of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela – is set to win yet another big victory in South Africa's municipal elections today. But don't take that as a sign that South African politics is moribund.

There's a party campaigning for the legalization of cannabis, another promoting the abolition of income tax, and a political movement calling for the full independence of the Western Cape from South Africa.

Indeed, the fringe world of South African politics is alive and well. And analysts say the variety and number of parties – 121 in total – who've registered is a good indication of the strength of South Africa’s 17-year-old multi-party democratic credentials.

“After 1994 we had the towering figure of Nelson Mandela driving us on but now it’s clear that there are different levels of democracy based on cultural, regional, language, and local issues," says Peter Vale, a professor of politics at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. “We’re moving away from that African default position endorsed by [former President] Thabo Mbeki of the one-party answer to all problems, which we’ve seen in Zimbabwe. We have all different types of parties including the Monster Raving Loony-type parties which won’t win, but are competing for votes. I think that represents a healthy democratic culture.”

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While political pundits guess the regional and national outcome for the ANC and its main rival, the Democratic Alliance (DA), the smaller parties will be dreaming of influence in the local corridors of power.

In a nod to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, there’s a United Action Front, a United Independent Front, a United Majority Front, and a United Residents Front from an election list where a Manchester United Front would not look out of place – and probably garner more votes – in soccer-mad South Africa.

The list of parties also includes the Dagga Party, which is contesting 12 wards in the Robertson and Worcester areas of the Western Cape province with the call to legalize cannabis – or dagga, as it is known in South Africa.

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There's also the Abolition of Income Tax and Usury Party. It views income tax as a Marxist form of enslavement and advocates government partnership with big business and indirect taxes as the way forward.

In Cape Town, the Cape Party wants full independence from South Africa arguing the province gets a bad deal from the national government in Pretoria.

Some fringe groups couldn't get on the ballot, however. The Poor People’s Movement, Sport Party, and Guys of Delivery (GOD), for instance, were all rejected by the electoral commission for failing to fulfill legal requirements.

One such party missed the registration deadline, but may have actually won some popular support on its name alone. The Tired of Promises Party carries a certain appeal in a country fed up with the lack of service delivery.

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