Whereas the “national assembly” may sound like a collection of accommodation venues, or Durban hotels for that matter, it is instead a vital cog in the political machinery helping a democratic South Africa to function well.
Fourteen of South Africa’s political parties are currently represented in the National Assembly. The majority seat holder is the African National Congress with 264 seats out of a total of 400. The ANC started out as the South African Native National Congress in 1912, but in 1923 changed its name. By 1955, the ANC was a signatory to the Freedom Charter, a document which still influences party policy in the present day. In 1960, following the Sharpeville massacre (where inexperienced police officers opened fire on anti-Apartheid protestors), the party was banned and forced to operate as an illegal organisation. UmKhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, began its anti-State terrorist activities in 1961. In early 1990, along with other political prisoners, Nelson Mandela was released from twenty seven years of incarceration and took the helm of the unbanned ANC. As a political party, the ANC is committed to the socio-economic development of South Africa, especially of previously disadvantaged peoples, and to the gradual eradication of poverty. The South African Communist Party (SACP), while not winning any seats in the National Assembly itself, is represented by its members as the SACP (along with the ANC and Cosatu) forms part of the tri-partite alliance: that is, because of its agreement with the ANC, the SACP is directly represented by its members who hold ANC seats.
With 67 seats in the National Assembly, the Democratic Alliance is South Africa’s official opposition party. The history of the DA as an opposition to the dominant party can be traced back to the Apartheid era when the Progressive Federal Party (the DA’s forerunner), led by Helen Suzman, voiced fierce disapproval of racial segregation and human rights violations. The PFP evolved into the Democratic Party, led by Tony Leon, and then into the DA when the DP incorporated the disintegrating New National Party into its ranks. The NNP, however, soon left the coalition, and disbanded itself. Under the leadership of Helen Zille, the DA has made consistent gains in its support due to its backing of constitutional democracy and the free, competitive market in which South Africans are encouraged to create markets for anything from kitchen appliances to bundled debt packages and securities.
The Congress of the People (COPE) recently entered the political arena, but owing to the popularity and support of its two central figures (Mbhazima Shilowa and Mosiuoa Lekota), the party currently has 30 of the possible 400 seats in the National Assembly. COPE was formed by ANC members who opposed the vote of no confidence in the administration of then President Thabo Mbeki, but party infighting has undermined its public image.
The Inkhata Freedom Party has 18 seats in the National Assembly, and is often seen as a traditionally Zulu party. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the IFP and Buthelezi family, was installed as head of the KwaZulu Territorial Authority (in terms of the Apartheid era Bantu Administration Act), and by 1976 had become the homeland’s chief minister. IFP opposition (primarily the ANC) branded him as an Apartheid regime puppet, and in the build up to the 1994 democratic elections, ANC and IFP members engaged in factional violence killing thousands of people (one figure puts it as high as 20 000 people).
The remaining nine political parties account for the last 22 seats of the National Assembly, and include: the Independent Democrats (ID); the United Democratic Movement (UDM); the Freedom Front Plus (FF+); African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP); United Christian Democratic Party (UCDP); Pan Africanist Congress (PAC); Minority Front (MF); Azania People’s Organisation (AZAPO);and the African People’s Convention (APC).