South Africa Journal: What Is the Purpose of Opposition?

What is the purpose of an opposition? It is easier to explain, in the context of great ideological battles, why it is best to side with a struggling minority rather than a powerful majority. But it is less clear what purpose opposition serves in less contested times, and even in times of division it can be difficult to make the case for an opposition that has suffered repeated political defeats. The sheer strength of the majority is a flawed yet powerful argument for the truth of its opinion.

In South Africa, the opposition has grown in strength but is essentially weak. And though it has long prided itself on the strength of its ideas, its confidence in those ideas seems to have fallen. One of its current fixations is “e-tolls,” electronic tolling systems on provincial highways. There are all sorts of reasons to suspect the motives of a government that raises revenue to spend it foolishly or corruptly, or that grants the contracts for the tolls to under-qualified political cronies. 

Yet the technology itself is inoffensive. E-tolls exist on many California highways as a means to reduce congestion, and there are few complaints. A closer parallel would be red light cameras in Chicago, which are universally detested–not only because they are only the latest in the city’s long list of revenue-raising schemes, but because they exploit a problem the city has failed to address, namely congestion, which means running red lights is sometimes the only option.

And yet while opposition to specific projects will sometimes rally the electorate as a whole, if the weaknesses of those projects become widely-recognized symbols of the problems of the whole, they often appear to be opposition for mere opposition’s sake.That can offend voters who see such opposition as petty. It can also disappoint potential supporters who see such opposition as limited in its ambitions. Is there, in fact, any intrinsic purpose to opposition for its own sake?

There are positive things that opposition can do. It can, merely by resisting a powerful force, provide space for other, more timid, dissenting voices. It can highlight possible mistakes and pitfalls in the policies of the governing majority. It can, simply by virtue of providing a theoretical alternative, inspire the governing party to take care in the performance of its duties, the crafting of its policies, and the responsiveness with which it addresses the concerns of the voting public.

Yet none of these are things that an opposition must do, and there are many opposition parties that fail to perform some or even all of these basic functions. Is there some purpose to it in any case? Moreover, can those that engage in opposition for opposition’s sake really be said to be acting in the interest of the community, not just their own–especially when circumstances are urgent, as they may be in times of external threat or conditions of great poverty and inequality?

The Talmudic sages had no reason to honor opposition. And yet they did, preserving even those opinions thought to be fundamentally wrong. One reason was that future generations of rabbis might find the minority to be correct. But another, more fundamental reason was that opposition brought out the best in the tradition as a whole. It was useful to help illustrate fundamental ideas in a way that logic alone could not. It showed human frailty–and beyond that, basic humanity.

And that, essentially, is the purpose of opposition. It expresses a basic idea about the nature of human beings: that we are divided, even within our individual selves; that none of us dare lay claim to the whole truth; that we are fallible but no less valuable for that. Opposition is not afraid to express even folly for the sake of that vision of humanity, which recognizes a dignity in human beings in spite of our imperfection. It may only be an aesthetic theory, but one worth defending.