JOHANNESBURG - It's going to be a colorful election in the Rainbow Nation.
Whether you're a Leninite, a free-market capitalist, a right-winger, an outspoken lefty, a Shariah-law fundamentalist or just a dedicated pot smoker, South Africa's May 8 ballot spans the entire political spectrum, offering something for nearly every type of voter.
Forty-eight political parties are contesting this year’s national election, leaving voters spoiled for choice beyond the top three: the African National Congress, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters parties.
The smaller, newer parties have wildly different aims -- some, like the African Transformation Movement, are church-based and say their platform revolves around human rights. Others are aligned with more traditional political views, or have niche issues to push in national government.
But they all seem to share one thing: dissatisfaction with the political status quo. The head the ATM party, Vuyo Zungula, says they couldn’t get the change they wanted through partnership with the ruling ANC. So they started their own party, through the South African Council of Messianic Churches in Christ.
The party, Zungula says, is pro-gay-rights and doesn't want to change existing laws that allow abortion. Instead, he says, the party wants to show South Africans the meaning of service.
“We believe that what the people of South Africa truly need now, they need people who will genuinely serve them," the 31-year-old presidential candidate told VOA as about 100 of his followers packed into a hall in Soweto for the party's final rally.
While it’s likely the large, powerful ANC will dominate this election, analysts say the small parties play a valuable role in government. South Africa’s system of proportional representation means small parties don’t need a large number of votes - as few as 50,000 are all it takes - to get one of 400 parliamentary seats.
That may include the scrappy Dagga Party - “dagga” is local slang for marijuana. The pro-legalization party was behind a widely celebrated, headline-grabbing Supreme Court ruling last year that saw the decriminalization of cannabis in South Africa. But the party missed the election registration deadline this year, so it instead joined forces with the brand-new African Democratic Change party, which is on the ballot.
Professor and analyst Ivor Sarakinsky says it’s this diversity that makes South Africa’s parliament great.
“Those parties might be springboards to ask tough questions to the new parliament and the new administration after the election," he told VOA. "If they get support, they won’t necessarily get big numbers, but their presence will add some real spice to the parliament that’s going to be formed shortly.”
That’s exactly what the tiny, six-week-old Capitalist Party hopes to do. The party is only fielding 10 candidates -- not enough to dictate terms on their own, but enough, their leader, Kanthan Pillay, believes, to play a valuable role in government because of their candidates' wealth of business experience.
“All of the political parties out there are offering variations on the same recipe," he said. "They’re all promising that government is going to create more jobs, they’re all promising that they’re going to cut back on government spending, and they’re all promising better levels of education. We don’t believe that they have the capability to deliver on any of those things, simply because they lack the expertise to do so.”
On the opposite side of that spectrum is another new entrant, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party, which is part of the nation's largest single trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. Unions have traditionally backed the ANC, but spokeswoman Phakamile Hlubi-Majola says this party was born of frustration with the ruling party.
“We are the only political party in South Africa that is fighting for the destruction of the capitalist system," she told VOA. "We believe that we represent the aspirations of the 23 million members of the working class of South Africa whose aspirations have, frankly, been ignored by the capitalist ANC government for the last 25 years.”
At the end of the day, says analyst Angelo Fick, the ANC will win more seats than any other party. But the varied opposition, he says, is a reflection of a healthy democracy.
“The plethora of choices in front of the South African electorate is not, for me, a sign of too much, too soon," he said. "It is, in fact, a sign of the vibrancy of the contestation around ideas."