The moonshot's bring-and-braai

William Saunderson-Meyer on who turned up, and who didn't, at the multi-party "national convention"


South Africans yearn for inspirational leadership, according to recent research. 

If so, they may be somewhat disappointed in the political talent that assembled this week in Kempton Park. The two-day meeting was to explore the prospects of an alliance of opposition parties to challenge the African National Congress in the 2024 general election. The gathering was predicated on the reality that while the ANC will likely fall below 51% support, no single opposition party will get more than it.

Just meeting was something of a triumph. Big egos and alliances, as the repeated collapse of municipal coalitions over the past few years have shown, don’t go well together. 

The two biggest players at the conference, the Democratic Alliance’s John Steenhuisen and ActionSA’s Herman Mashaba, have been especially guilty in this regard, but both seem to have behaved impeccably. Steenhuisen particularly, as leader of the biggest party by far in the room, would have had to choke down a lot of pride. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

However, this was not quite the “national convention” that it was pretentiously punted to be. 

The 1908 National Convention that hammered out the template of the Union of South Africa comprised delegations from the colonies of the Cape, Natal, Orange River and Transvaal. The Convention for a Democratic South Africa, which laid down the tenets of the interim Constitution between 1990 and 1993 — also held at Kempton Park — was truly national in that it included almost every major political player, as well as the SA and homeland governments. 

This particular Kempton Park bring-and-braai was not quite in the same league. Aside from the DA and ActionSA, the others involved were the IFP, Freedom Front Plus (FF+), the Independent SA National Civic Organisation (Isanco), the United Independent Movement (UIM) and Spectrum National Party (SNP). 

Unfortunately for the participants — and South Africa — an alphabet soup bowl of party acronyms doesn’t necessarily spell out an electoral banquet. In the 2021 municipal elections, the DA got 20% of the national vote, the IFP 6%, FF+ and ActionSA both drew around 2% support. 

Isanco and UIM, with 0.15% and 0.12% of the vote respectively, are truly tiddlers. Maybe tadpoles. 

Spectrum, although founded by its leader Christopher Claassen in 2019, appears yet to be tested; I can find no record of public representatives on its website. It does, however, have 20 followers on X, 25 on LinkedIn and 1.4k on Facebook. 

In contrast, the ANC in 2021’s local elections got 48% of the vote (down from 56% in 2016) and in the 2019 general election, it got 58% (down 4% from 2014). Its natural ally and sometime stalking horse, the Economic Freedom Fighters, polled around 11% in both. Together, unless the ANC vote next year dramatically plunges further, they are not only assured of a majority but may be within sight of a Constitution-changing 66%.

An ANC/EFF link-up is definitely a possibility, despite recent avowals of mutual antipathy from parties’ leaders. But if push came to shove, they would hop into bed together even if it meant the (small) risk of a (small) breakaway by old-school, non-racial ANC veterans. 

Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the marriage contract and lebola payments are already in hand. Why else was EFF leader Julius Malema recently filmed hacking to death a sacrificial bull with a penknife? 

All this is admittedly what-if speculation. Nevertheless, these sobering performance statistics illustrate the immense problem confronting the opposition movements. Even in decline, the ANC is still massive and, if it doesn’t split, likely would require just one partner if it found itself short of a majority. 

The opposition parties, of which there are more than 270 registered for national elections, have until now basically been trading voters between themselves. It’s a small and stagnant pool that is steadily being diminished further by emigration. What gains the opposition parties have made are largely the result of disenchanted ANC voters not voting — as well as from dismally low new voter registrations — both of which especially disadvantage the ANC and EFF. 

The real key to sustained opposition growth is these alienated and apathetic voters. Any coalition, to be a credible alternative, has to get this traditionally ANC constituency — it consists overwhelmingly of black Africans — to switch allegiance.

That is, of course, exactly what the new grouping is hoping to achieve. Although it would help if, as starters, there were clarity on what to call them.

While they wisely rejected Steenhuisen’s choice of the Moonshot Pact, with its futuristic action-hero connotations, the alternative they settled on is ambiguous. The formal name is the Multi-Party Charter for South Africa.

What a mouthful. Does that contract to MPCSA? Or MCSA, since the media tends to ignore hyphenations? Or Multi-Party Alliance, contracting to MPA, as I’ve seen some in the media use? Or maybe the Charterists, a name that resonates in Struggle history?

More pressing than the clumsy name are the enormous challenges ahead. And with a general election due within a year, there’s not much time.

The first challenge is to build momentum by adding members. After all, that’s what successful coalitions do: through the conglomeration of a myriad of parties, they maximise niche strengths that would otherwise go to waste.

Obvious omissions from the Charter are Gayton Mackenzie’s Patriotic Alliance and the African Christian Democratic Party. Neither is a big player but both have loyal, niche constituencies. The problem is that Mackenzie, a formerly jailed gangster facing new claims of corruption, is a destructive megalomaniac who is perfectly capable of singlehandedly blowing the Charter pact to smithereens.

There is also a growing number of political soloists who have to be dragged into the orchestra. While there has been no electoral test of the support for the likes of Mmusi Maimane’s Build One South Africa or Songezo Zibi’s Rise Mzansi, both leaders are highly marketable assets.

The second challenge is not to get too hung up on policy. The Charter settled on a suitably vague 10-point programme of warm and cuddly goals — implementing the Constitution, the rule of law, transparency in government, an open market economy, and “ to redress our unjust past and promoting non-racialism”, among others — but everyone has to be clear that there’s only one thing that matters; to get rid of a toxic and incompetent ANC government that is destroying South Africa.

The third challenge is not to destroy the alliance before it’s even properly got going, by an unseemly jostling for office. Spoils, if there are any, can be divvied up after the general election. Until then, it’s suicide to dilute mass appeal by naming leaders who will arouse strong antipathies. 

In this regard, the delegates cleverly skirted the problem of the DA’s Steenhuisen or ActionSA’s Herman Mashaba, both divisive figures, as the Charter’s choice for president.

Instead, there’s a proportional power-sharing agreement based on each party’s electoral performance. Unless it achieved an outright majority, which is well nigh impossible, the DA would despite likely being the biggest party in the pact, be guaranteed no more than the deputy-presidency. And the tinkering to prevent a single party from controlling both the legislative and executive arms of government means there is potentially space for both Steenhuisen and Mashaba fiefdoms.

Most crucially, given the scale of South Africa’s crisis, we need a true National Convention. The leaders of the Charter should, as an urgent priority, work to bring together the many alarmed and despairing civic society organisations, business organisations, corporate leaders, and prominent South Africans, who comprehend that the country is on the edge of the abyss.

It’s the one thing that a multi-party grouping could achieve, which would be impossible for any single political party.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye