No shortage of Messiahs

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the aspirant leaders jostling to be the ones to save SA


To the outside world, South Africa’s problems may seem as daunting as they can possibly come. But fortunately, there is no shortage of would-be, home-bred Messiahs volunteering to rectify matters with a wave of a shepherd’s crook. 

This is the new phenomenon of independent presidential candidates, soaring unassisted except by boundless self-confidence and the occasional bit of divine inspiration.

Frustrated by the established political parties — in some cases, because they had been unable to sublimate in the collective their egotistical belief that they, personally, had all the answers to the pressing questions of the day — they are starting their own, personal political movements.

If former president Jacob Zuma is indeed correct in his assertion that the African National Congress will rule “until Jesus returns”, these guys and gals are determined to hasten the process. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

One of the leading lights lining up to challenge for the 2024 presidency is Songezo Zibi, a former Business Day editor and a former communications head of ABSA, who announced his candidacy with the words, “I am prepared to lead, for I know there will be no anointed Messiah at any point in the future. This includes running for president.”

The independents, as they call themselves, have none of the burdens of belonging to an established political party. No need, for example, to compromise to reach collective decisions followed by the irksome discipline of having to toe the party line on something that you don’t entirely agree with.

But also none of any of the advantages of working with tried and tested structures, such as the benefit of being able to share in the party’s collective wisdom and physical resources.

These new movements are not formed from the bottom up, in the traditional way, by people of like minds coalescing to advance a set of political goals and principles together. Instead, they are loosely organised and established at a public-relations choreographed stroke from the top down.

Like celebrity fan clubs, they are headed by charismatic but often narcissistic leaders — so far, all black and mostly young men — each flogging their idiosyncratic, copyright-registered vision for the country.

These conceptions are generally emotionally stirring but lacking in detail. Similarly, the independents’ strategies for wresting power from the governing African National Congress are only vaguely articulated. 

Their approach seems to amount to an as yet untested belief that when the 2024 general election dawns, they will be embraced by a grateful nation and be swept to power buoyed by their charming personalities and good intentions.

Presumably, trailing from their gilded coattails, enough of their supporters will also be elected for them to be able to make the legislative changes in Parliament necessary to put their dreams into operation.

Despite these challenging practicalities, there’s a constant flow of hopefuls throwing their hats into the ring. 

Earlier this month, it was former Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng joining the fray. Mogoeng will be the presidential candidate of the All African Alliance Movement which, despite its ambitious name is something of a one-man band — a vehicle for the controversial former head of the Constitutional Court’s ambitions to mobilise the Christian fundamentalist vote.

Mogoeng’s candidacy was announced in an amateurish video released on Twitter.“We have long been in the wilderness and not reaching the promised land,” an unidentified church leader intoned, “but we want you all to know that in 2024 we will enter Canaan with our president, Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.”

Next came Makashule Gana, who resigned as a Democratic Alliance member of the Gauteng Legislature “to join an emerging generation of leaders and activists committed to mobilising and organising to return power to the people of South Africa … This generation is rising because the country is progressing from crisis to chaos, with our current political system and leadership accelerating rather than arresting it.”

Gana joins several disaffected DA leaders — including the DA’s former parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and party leader Mmusi Maimane — some of whom believe that such sole-performer formations are the answer to voter disillusionment and, specifically, the large number of former ANC voters who have stopped voting for the government but have been unable to find a new political party that they feel at home in.

But it’s not only about addressing an unmet political need. More prosaically, independent candidatures are popping up all over the place simply because this is now possible. In 2020, the Constitutional Court struck down an Electoral Act regulation that limited independents to the local government level, compelling candidates for provincial or national office to join (or form) a political party.

There’s a certain hubris involved in believing that you, singlehandedly, hold the answer to the country’s political woes. But politicians tend to be egotistical creatures, assured of their infallibility. Add to that the reality that if you are in an existing political party, there is the constant stress of scrambling for advantage over your internal rivals; striking out your own then can become an irresistible alternative, especially when there is an array of foundations, corporates and individual donors who are eager to provide some start-up capital.

The downside is the negative effect that all this free-floating vanity may have on the political system. Aside from the ever-present danger of xenophobic or racist populism — the fastest way to the top of the political dungheap is scapegoating vulnerable groups — independents probably lack the clout to have a sustained, meaningful impact.

To be electorally successful requires substantial financial and organisational resources: offices, vehicles, computers, researchers, organisers, and party agents in every constituency. 

If any proof of this is needed, consider the likes of Mamphela Ramphele (Agang), Nana Ngobese-Nxumalo (Women Forward) and Makhosi Khoza (African Democratic Change). They all burst into political prominence to the media’s soaring chords of sycophancy, only to disappear without trace shortly afterwards. 

Lest we think these failed ventures are all one-woman efforts, let’s not forget the Congress of the People. Upon its breakaway from the ANC in 2009, COPE took a golden moment for the possible disruption of one-party hegemony and squandered in a Tweedledum versus Tweedledee battle of attrition between rival saviours, Terror Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa.

Further evidence is the mediocre performance of the 300 independent candidates that Maimane’s One South Africa Movement backed in last year’s local elections. Contrary to its objective of holding the balance of power in poorly run municipalities, to force future accountability, OSA shaped only in the one province that is reasonably well run, the Western Cape. 

Only two OSA-backed movements won any seats, Cederberg Eerste and Knysna Independent Movement, and they’ve had minimal political impact. Instead, the “independents” have proved to be anything but, succumbing readily to the power and status blandishments with which the big players can buy cooperation.

While only the gullible will see the independents as a solution to the failings of the major parties, one mustn’t overstate their limitations. There can be a role for them in unlocking South Africa’s political logjam, for they are at least correct in their diagnosis of the problem — the electorate’s scepticism towards the major parties. 

Aside from the massive number of disillusioned ANC supporters who are abstaining from voting rather than backing the DA or any of the smaller opposition parties, there is an even larger number of young voters who have not bothered to register at all. These votes could conceivably be mobilised by the independents, operating as staging posts, with the eventual goal of a coalition with an existing party or the creation of a completely new party. 

This kind of bridge building may be what Zibi has ultimately in mind. His recent book, Manifesto, claims to distil the political thinking of the so-called Rivonia Circle of black intellectuals and may be the start of a coherent political movement that will be more than just an exercise in personal aggrandisement. In other words, a political party.

But there’s not much time for vainglorious games. A general election is less than two years away and, at this stage, it’s not Canaan but Hell that beckons.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye