In a constitutional democracy, critical voices must be raised and heard. That is precisely why one has an opposition. In theory, the government should change hands every decade or so, with the opposition taking over with fresh ideas, new people and policies tailored for the present and future, not the past. The governing party needs to be thrown out so that over-mighty rulers become ordinary people again and it formulates new policies with new people, ready to take over government again in the future.
In South Africa, which has only been a proper democracy for 26 years, but also for 46 years before that, the country has been, in effect, a one-party dominant state. This might be changing. In the last municipal election, the ANC support dropped to just over 53%. The general election result showed a slight improvement for the ANC, but it lost a lot of parliamentary seats. The combined opposition has shown signs of growing and the official opposition, the DA, after a dip in support last year, seems to have recovered its mojo.
During the Covid 19 crisis, only the ANC and the DA have made any running. None of the smaller parties, like the EFF, have added anything to the debate. A few weeks ago, the DA published its smart lockdown proposals and it must be gratifying for John Steenhuisen and his team to note that many DA proposals have been accepted by the government. Initially, Steenhuisen was heavily criticised, especially on social media, for daring to even question some of the regulations which seemed to make no sense. He said one must balance both the imperative of saving lives with the other imperative of saving the economy. One worthy, an academic who used to worship at the Zuma shrine but who is now a fervent Ramaphosa worshipper, attacked Steenhuisen for “not having a sense of occasion.” To her, it seemed to me, it was the equivalent of attacking Our Lord on Good Friday or shouting “Down with the Monarchy,” as the crown was placed on the queen’s head at the Coronation.
Most sensible people, at least those who believe in democracy, know that the price of freedom has always been eternal vigilance. Rulers and governors too easily assume an aura of infallibility.
Sometimes, they have an irresistible urge to extend their powers, using the excuse that they are acting for the public good; after all, they know best. Clearly, that is not always the case.
Rules and regulations and laws issued under decree, using the current (or any) national crisis as cover too easily encroach on essential freedoms. Shining the spotlight on government actions and failures is a vital part of the democratic discourse. It is not only the courts and the media that should do this. The general public needs that spotlight to assist them in deciding whether the politicians are acting in the public interest or their own party-political interest. Quite often, there is a difference.
This is why one has, and needs, an opposition party large enough to challenge the governing party at elections, local, provincial and national. One needs an opposition that can govern, at least in some towns, cities and provinces, to show that it can govern competently and be a power factor in elections, able to challenge the ruling party. Nothing concentrates the minds of politicians better than the thought that the voters might vote for someone else next time.
 Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand. His website is: douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com.