Sunday, 16 November 2014

Time for a National Imbizo?

Back in 1955, the Congress of the People was a national gathering for those excluded from the apartheid order, which produced the Freedom Charter, a blueprint for a non-racial South Africa. By the time of our first democratic election in 1994, there was a presumption that the Freedom Charter was dated in detail, but nothing was done to replace it. Nearly 60 years on, the country is increasingly directionless and it is not clear that there is a national consensus on the kind of nation we want to be.

In the wake of the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) from Cosatu there is growing talk of launching a new political party.

Before Numsa rushes into creating yet another party, is it not time for us as a nation to sit back and take stock of where we are as a nation, and what our national programme should be?

Anyway, haven’t we been there before?
Voting pattern 1994–2014: the biggest change is in the fraction not voting
There was the split of the ANC in the wake of the Zuma ascendancy that led to the formation of Cope, which fell apart amidst acrimonious lawsuits. From 6.75% of the vote in 2009, they dropped to 0.67% on 2014.

Then in 2013 the EFF and Agang were formed, each as the great new hope for an alternative to the ANC. The EFF fared a whole lot better, with 6.35% of the vote, while Agang barely made it to 2 seats with 0.28% of the vote. Collectively, Cope, EFF and Agang only scored 7.3% – not much more than Cope’s 2009 result. Agang is now following the Cope example with acrimonious lawsuits and EFF has split, with results still to be determined.

The DA, meanwhile, has gained ground – but if you look at the picture, the opposition vote is no bigger than it was in 1994, when the ANC was led into the election by Madiba, one of the most revered political figures of the last century. The only really big change since 1994 is the declining fraction of the voting population who turn out to vote (the black zone at the top – a drop of nearly 30%).

So what we can see is that parties that try to appeal directly to the ANC base are stuck in band of 5-7% even when they come with a huge plus like taking away a big section of senior leadership (Cope) or a major part of the ANC Youth League (EFF). And parties that do not have such a direct appeal to the ANC base cannot attract much more than 20%. That the biggest effect since 1994 is the collapse in voter turnout says a lot about how little appeal opposition parties have to disaffected ANC supporters.

If the main unifying force of a new party is dislike of another party, that cannot lead to a sustainable movement, which is why there is so much internal strife in opposition parties. Even the DA, the most successful so far, has had its internal conflicts.

Part of the crowd at the Congress of the People, Kliptown, 1955
Back to 1955: the Congress of the People was a national gathering of those excluded by apartheid and preceding orders. It resulted in the Freedom Charter, a document so long dormant that by 1994, the ANC did not consider it relevant in detail even if the ANC pays lip service to the main ideas.

What we need today is another national gathering, this time reflecting the full diversity of our society, to talk about the problems we face today – and to map out a new national direction.

Since the political process has not delivered this and indeed is failing in many very basic ways, civil society should take a lead. I propose we call a national imbizo under the auspices of major civil society movements. We have some in this country with a huge following and that have done brilliant work, filling the gap where government has failed. Examples include various movements of the unemployed, unions, Treatment Action Campaign, Equal Education, business organizations, environmental groups, Khulumani Support Group – and there are many more.

If we can call such a national imbizo and arrive at a common understanding of what we as a society see as our priorities, only then is it reasonable to talk about a new political movement. Even if this imbizo does not result in a new movement, it will help those in existing parties to understand where we are going wrong.