Helen Zille

A maddening paradox of SA politics is that the major opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is both vigorous and ineffective. The DA has just held a successful national congress that unanimously re - elected, Helen Zille.  It exudes energy and provides robust analysis of the state's weaknesses.  It has a flair for gaining publicity with stunts like the "visit" to President Jacob Zum's residence, and is adept at using litigation to snipe at the ANC. 

Such an opposition should be able to take huge advantage of a ruling party in chronic disarray because of policy paralysis, corruption, organisational malfunction, factionalism and weak leadership. Yet there is at present no prospect (whatever the DA claims) of the ANC losing power in the next general election in 2014, or 2019.

Though the ANC seems electorally impregnable, it should be careful not to take this for granted. In the UK , the mighty Liberal Party went from confident power to virtual extinction within the first three decades of the 1900s. In SA, the National Party (NP) achieved its (white) electoral peak in 1966 with 58% of the vote and 71% of the seats in parliament - a numerical dominance similar to that enjoyed by the ANC now. Until the late 1980s its ejection from office was unthinkable - but within another decade it was reduced to a token presence and it then disappeared.

The DA will, of course, claim that such a decline is already under way for the ANC. It is true that the DA's support increased steadily from 1,7% of the vote in the 1994 general election to 16% in 2009, and then dramatically to nearly 25% overall in the municipal elections in 2011. Crucially, the DA actually won power in Cape Town and the Western Cape, thus enabling it to prove its effectiveness in office.

Yet the ANC is more afraid of its alliance partner, Cosatu, than it is of the DA. The fact is that we do not have a genuine two-party system, which depends on the perception among voters that the government of the day can be ousted at the next opportunity. Nothing concentrates the mind of politicians like uncertainty over the result of the next election. It is in that sense that democracy needs a strong opposition, not merely a vocal and principled one.

In an electoral system based on proportional representation, small parties have little influence. Unless they wish merely to remain as a tiny voice for a particular defined interest group (like the Freedom Front Plus), their support will rapidly consolidate around the small party with the greatest growth potential. This is why the NP and the Independent Democrats were absorbed by the DA. But that consolidation is now largely completed - and now the DA must eat into the ANC's traditional support to grow further.

It may be that Zille is both the DA's greatest asset and its greatest liability. It seems to rely too much on her personality, and to an extent on the conscious promotion of the three DA poster ladies - Zille, Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille and parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. Its other leaders, in the provinces and cities, do not spring easily to mind - which they should if their party commands a quarter of the national vote and if it is to grow from there. So the DA needs more heavy hitters with the kind of political presence that is easy to recognise but hard to define. It must also somehow tailor its message to address the concerns of the great mass of citizens, and make itself more attractive to them. It rightly hammers corruption, but many citizens have resigned themselves to this cancer rather than being outraged by it - unless they perceive that they themselves have been deprived.

Millions of South Africans are materially better off than they were before the ANC came to power. Like their counterparts in Greece or the US, they are not concerned about whether social grants are fiscally sustainable, or whether the state should be more or less involved in the economy. It is these people whose interests the DA needs to identify, and whose attention it needs to attract. It will not do so merely by lecturing the ANC and exposing its shortcomings.