Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Signs of the Times

The atmosphere at the national convention in Sandton this past weekend was festive.
Small South African flags, placed on the chairs in the hall, were waved about happily.
Young volunteers wore yellow t-shirts with the word volunteer printed in large letters across their backs. They were polite and courteous with many of them admitting that they had never been part of a political organisation.
All around there were smiling, happy faces as if the crowd was part of an evangelical church gathering. When a lone priest delivered the opening prayers, there were a few cries of “Oh Jesus” and “Hallelujah” rising from the audience of over 5,000. The organisers pegged the official attendance at 6,300 based on registration figures.

It was unclear what exactly was happening. Were people so happy because they had stood up in defence of Thabo Mbeki? Were they so happy because this was a chance for them to have access to power? Were they happy because they could express their pent up political frustrations?

Numerous interviews with many who had attended gave some clues to the answer. Some had come as individuals who had quietly supported the ANC over many years, had wished for its success without being members and now disappointed in the organisation for numerous reasons. Others had come as part of ANC branches that had broken away because they no longer felt their voices were heard. Then there were those who came from opposition parties who felt the convention offered a space for South Africans to speak together and potentially hear one another as they so often failed to do in parliament. Interestingly common to most of those interviewed was the offence they took to the utterances of Julius Malema, the Youth League President.
A number of women who were ANC voters said that they were being challenged by their sons and daughters to explain how they could support a party that allowed a young man to be disrespectful to their elders. They also did not know how to explain to their adult children why they would vote for somebody who was promiscuous.

The organisers of the national convention appear to have successfully read the signs of the times South Africans are living through. Listening to the delegates representing each province, it emerged that there was great concern about joblessness, crime, poor health services and poor education. At the same time, there was major concern about morality, good leadership and decent respectful conduct. There was also a growing call for a reorganisation of the electoral system to allow citizens to elect their leaders directly rather than through a party. A cynic could argue that this suited the leaders of the convention since it would allow for the possibility that one of them could in the future contest the presidential elections. There was no doubt however that this call resonated strongly with those present. They no longer felt connected to those whom they had elected into power and blamed the electoral system which placed power in the hands of political parties. (See the article that follows at the end of this week for a fuller explanation of this.)

Compared to Polokwane in December last year where the tension was high, this was a gathering of like-minded individuals largely motivated by a desire for change. Guest speaker, Dr Barney Pityana perhaps best captured the driving force present when he said: “Deep down our people seek peace and strive for the affirmation of their humanity.”

They spontaneously sang ‘happy birthday” when they heard it was the 80th birthday of Gatsha Buthulezi, the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party and repeated this when Nils Flaaten, the delegate representing the views of the Western Cape, disclosed that it was his birthday.

Besides these high doses of feel-good impulses, the superficial discussions in the hall gave little indication of how this initiative would offer a fresh approach to the enormous challenges South Africans face.

There were some important indicators of the conventions direction:
• A new party would be launched on December 16 this year and contest next years election
• This party would lobby for electoral change
• It will place strong emphasis on reaffirming traditional family families and encouraging ethical and respectful conduct.
• It would campaign for the constitution to be respected.
• It would direct its appeal to the youth across the racial divide.

While it may be committed to these lofty ideals, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The proceedings this weekend placed on display potentially serious difficulties that this grouping will have to overcome. Most of those who formed part of the preparatory committee do not have a history of working closely together. They share in common their past membership of the ANC. That is about all. The only two who have been in a close working relationship is the former Defence Minister, Terror Lekota and his former deputy, Mluleki George. Mbhazima Shilowa is the former premier of Gauteng. Hilda Ndude from the Western Cape is a former activist turned business woman. Anele Mda from the Eastern Cape is a young woman who works as a personal assistant to one of the Eastern Cape Youth Commissioner. Phillip Dexter is the former treasurer of the South African Communist Party. Willie Madisha is a former Cosatu president and Lyndall Shope is a former activist and civil servant.
Their strength lies in the fact that their ethnic backgrounds are diverse. There is no danger that they could be accused of being representative of a particular ethnic group. But their challenge will be to give substance to the feeling of hope that they have engendered when they brought so many people together.

It is too early to say whether they will be successful. Shilowa’s declaration at the close of the meeting that they are ready to win the next elections cannot be taken seriously. Most other prominent leaders who participated in the deliberations were more realistic. A number of leaders who were prominent in the eighties such as Thozamile Botha, Danile Landingwe and Mkhuseli Jack were far more realistic. They admitted that it would be a hard slog to build a new party and that their intention was more to create an opposition to the ANC and pressure it from going in the wrong direction.

It is too early to tell whether their efforts will change the political landscape in the country or whether they will dwindle into just another small opposition party.

They may be fortunate however to benefit from reading the signs of the times correctly. However weakly organised they might turn out to be, there is a great chance that South Africans may decide to give them their protest vote. The ANC will have to shift from sticking to positions and conduct that do not resonate with large numbers of South Africans. By calling them “the black DA” and “counter-revolutionary”, they may further unleash the groundswell of disappointment and anger that is definitely simmering below the surface. If it chooses to use this unexpected turn of events to recognise fully the feelings that have emerged and respond to these creatively, it may yet undermine those who have broken away. Thus far, it has failed to understand that this is not just a group of angry people who want their positions. This is a group of people who have correctly read the signs of the times. And it is this more than anything else that will pose the greatest challenge to the ANC.


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