How does an opposition party become successful in a dominant party system? The case of South Africa

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The African National Congress has long been the brightest star in the firmament of the party system in South Africa, but its eminence is fading in the face of a rising Democratic Alliance. The success of the Democratic Alliance is instructive. The party barely survived the passage to majority-rule, but nonetheless escaped the gravitational pull of its historically narrow support base to challenge effectively for power across South Africa. The question is how has it come to present a credible challenge to the ANC, and whether there are broader lessons to draw from this example of a successful opposition in an African democracy. This article presents a theory explaining how the leadership of the Democratic Alliance made an expensive, unorthodox and risky investment in the party's organization that centralized power in order to manufacture a new identity, which transformed the party's capacity to appeal to new voters in South Africa's political system. The rise of the Democratic Alliance demonstrates how, and under what conditions, the leadership of an opposition party can turn the debate at election time away from identity and on to issues and, in the process, disrupt the stability of a dominant party system.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147-167
Number of pages21
JournalAfrican Affairs
Issue number470
Early online date10 Sept 2018
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 1 Jan 2019


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