Big Business buys a lemon

William Saunderson-Meyer on the underwhelming start to Roger Jardine's Change Starts Now movement


There is one certainty about the 29 May general election. There's going to be a lot of blood on the political floor. 

With one-and-a-bit of a political party for every day of the year — 369 parties and an as yet unspecified number of independent candidates vying for 400 National Assembly seats — there are going to be a lot of dashed hopes, shattered expectations and wasted effort and money. The scale of the coming carnage can be gauged by the makeup of this, the 27th Parliament of the Republic: 14 parties are represented, with only five holding more than 10 seats.

On 30 May, that picture, in terms of political party numbers, is unlikely to be much different. The African National Congress will remain the biggest party even if it loses its absolute majority. The Democratic Alliance will probably win its tussle with the Economic Freedom Fighters to retain the title of Official Opposition. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Any change in who forms the new government is dependent on the strength of the relatively newly formed opposition coalition, the Multi-Party Charter. Aside from the DA (with 84 MPs at present), its most important members are the Inkatha Freedom Party (14 MPs), Freedom Front Plus (10 MPs) and the African Christian Democratic Party (4 MPs). 

The only other parties with disruptive potential, at this stage of the campaign, appear to be President Jacob Zuma’s stalking horse, the uMkhonto weSizwe party, and the prickly Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA. MK, which threatens to take a big chunk of the ANC’s support in KwaZulu-Natal, would post-election align itself with the black nationalist grouping of the ANC and EFF. ActionSA, blooded in the 2021 local elections and now facing its first national contest, is a volatile part of the MPC.

The remainder bin of political hopefuls — the most touted of which are Songezo Zibi’s RISE Mzansi, Mmusi Maimane’s Build One SA, and Roger Jardine’s Change Starts Now — are, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant. Individually, these parties will have a negligible effect on the shape of our post-election landscape.

But collectively, as part of an MPC which they have been reluctant to join, they could make a difference. In an MPC dominated by the DA — which is led by the solid but stolid John Steenhuisen — charismatic, young leaders like Zibi and Maimane conceivably might lure the substantial number of young black voters who at present won’t vote because they are disappointed with the ANC and unconvinced by the DA.

Zibi’s RISE and Maimane’s BOSA at least have the advantage of having about a year of preparatory groundwork for this election. They’ve both crisscrossed the country multiple times to explain their policies to small groups of potential supporters.

They’ve also painstakingly built their social media profiles. Maimane has two million followers on Twitter, which in October’s Brenthurst/SABI Strategy voter opinion survey translated into a 24% personal favourability rating. Zibi, with 110,000 Twitter followers, had a 4% personal rating. (Jardine has all of 1,200 Twitter followers, fewer than my dear Aunt Hester who uses it to send cat videos.)

It’s Jardine’s CSN, in existence for fewer than three months, which is likely to turn out to be, rand-per-kilo, the dampest squib of the 2024 election. Its existence is also emblematic of an enduring political naïveté on the part of many of South Africa’s corporate giants, who believe that any problem can be solved by simply throwing enough money at it.

CSN was conceived last year by big business to solve the problem of what they perceived to be a lack of an electable alternative to the ANC. After a couple of decades of remarkable growth, the DA had hit a ceiling at around 22-25% of the vote. It was not only not attracting enough black voters to dent the ANC’s support, but it also had a white leader who showed no inclination to stand aside for someone of a duskier and more saleable hue.

There were promises, unsourced but widely reported in the mainstream media, of virtually unlimited funding from the captains of industry for a party that could “bridge the gap” between a depleted ANC and a stalled DA, if such a deal were necessary. At the time of CSN’s lacklustre launch last year, the Sunday Times reported that R1-billion had been set aside by “powerful financial backers” — check Roger’s sofa — to ensure that the CSN’s leader became the presidential face of the MPC coalition. 

On the face of it, Jardine has the ideal background. A former ANC political activist who had a successful career in the private sector — he was chair of First Rand — he is ideologically very much part of the ANC old guard.

These “veterans” and “Struggle stalwarts”, as they like to be called, who remained in the ANC, have seen their influence steadily erode. First, there was the crude black nationalism of Zuma, steeped in Zulu mythology. Then came the reed-backed presidency of Ramaphosa, who while paying lip service to the wise elders of the party, swayed in whichever direction the winds of expediency blew.

CSN was also quick to attract top-order organisational skills. Jardine’s campaign is led by Nicole Fitz, formerly executive director of the Helen Suzman Foundation, and Mark Heywood, an enormously experienced social activist who edited Maverick Citizen

So, a great concept — bridge the gap — together with clever people and unlimited bucks. What could go wrong? So far, seemingly everything.

Most intangibly but encouragingly, there has been a public gut reaction against yet another group of wealthy business people thinking they can just buy the top jobs, as was the practice in the Zuma years. As Daily Maverick’s Marianne Merten wrote, “No one is so naïve to not believe that money in politics is a reality. But backroom funders effectively pushing a cash-for-jobs line may well play into the public disenchantment with politicians and political governance.” 

Certainly, the MPC has not shown any sign, so far, of acquiescing and appointing Jardine as its presidential candidate. Part of that is, of course, selfish. The leader of each of the MPC’s constituent parties sees himself as ultimately heading the MPC as a whole.

Perhaps if Jardine were a more compelling leader, such parochialism could be overcome. But, on the face of his performance in the public eye thus far, if this is the best presidential candidate that money can buy, no wonder we’re so deep in the dwang.

Jardine comes across as well-intentioned and caring, but also placatory and evasive. When gifted a series of gentle lobs during a Gareth Cliff panel discussion last week, he failed to manage a single scoring return. The deceptively amiable Cyril Ramaphosa, never mind the snaggletoothed unionists and predatory taxi bosses, will eat him for breakfast.

That CSN positions itself so close to the ANC is another problem. I’m not convinced that the electorate is looking for what Jardine calls a “progressive opposition” — one that wants tax increases to fund a R500-billion “Marshall Plan” and a “significant” increase in social welfare grants, but nowhere in its manifesto confronts the root causes of institutionalised corruption, cadre deployment or economically crippling empowerment regulations — at this dismal and fraught moment. And if not now, when?

All is not lost for CSN. There’s a little over three months left for it to up its game. 

But, as yet, there has been none of the anticipated high-profile defections from the ANC, nor has CSN even twitched the needle in the voter surveys. Factor in meagrely attended campaign events, despite T-shirts and food parcels, and it’s not looking good.

Corporate SA may have bought a lemon.

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