South Africa

Kasrils and the ‘Vote No’ campaign: Point of no return

By Greg Nicolson 15 April 2014

These elections are about the ANC and whether the “broad church” can keep it together amid political scandals and dissatisfaction with the tangible outcomes of democracy. Anti-Apartheid stalwart Ronnie Kasrils clarified his position on Tuesday, launching a “Vote No” campaign. Like many others, he's hoping the ANC will see the light or a new left will emerge. By GREG NICOLSON.

In September 1988, the ANC was still planning a protracted struggle against the Apartheid government. Umkhonto we Sizwe intelligence chief Ronnie Kasrils, writing in the ANC’s Sechaba journal, called for a revolutionary army to support the mass uprisings and strikes already under way in townships. “If power came prematurely, through some negotiated formula imposed by circumstances beyond our control, and we had no revolutionary army at our disposal, we would find our people cheated of real power,” wrote Kasrils.

Times have changed. “We are no longer a liberation movement,” Kasrils said on Tuesday to ANC comrades critical of his decision to campaign against the party. The war’s over and democracy’s a time for dissent, he suggested. Along with former deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and activist and academic Vishwas Satgar, he was speaking at the Wits University during the launch of “Sidikwe! Vukani!”.

The initiative, translated as “We are fed up! Wake up!”, encourages voters to support smaller parties or, if they can’t, to spoil their ballots. It aims to reduce the ANC’s majority, or at least give the party a scare. It’s not about insulting the right to vote, the leaders pointed out, but encouraging all registered voters to go to the polling stations and send a message to the ANC and forces of capitalism that they’re not happy.

“Let’s listen to what our people are talking about. Let’s not be in denial with our rose-tinted spectacles that can easily talk away the abomination of the palace built in KwaZulu-Natal for Number One, or the shooting down of miners so disgustingly at Marikana,” said Kasrils. People continually ask him why ANC veterans are so quiet about issues in South Africa, so he decided to get involved.

“Corruption, cronyism, control over the public debate have spread like a cancer through the ANC and, because of this, through government and state institutions. This has undermined the often substantial advances made over the past 20 years with the result that millions of people now consider themselves ‘outsiders’, facing poverty, lack of jobs and poor education,” read the group’s press statement. It lists supporters including Barney Pityana, Mazibuko Jara, Breyten Breytenbach, Zapiro and Prof. Sampie Terreblanche.

The room was full of media and civil society members. Students weren’t allowed in but the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) – a grouping of the ANCYL, Young Communist League and Sasco – could be heard singing outside. Jerry Tlhopane, an informal trader and ANC member from the Vaal who was arrested for political activity in the 1980s, said every day he hears people in the township say they’re not going to vote. If you raise concerns in the ANC, you’re sidelined, he said.

Outside the Wits building, chairperson of the ANC’s branch on campus Themba Meso called Kasrils ‘a rebel, a Judas, a scoundrel’.

“We are here to tell him that he may go. He’s not a member of the ANC. He’s not the alpha and omega of morals of the ANC. He’s nothing in the ANC. He’s not a member. He’s now irrelevant.” Meso accused Kasrils of supporting anti-poor policies in Mbeki’s administration while attacking Zuma for personal reasons and ignoring the progress made on issues like HIV/Aids and reducing the power of labour brokers.

The Democratic Alliance (DA), Workers and Socialist Party, African Christian Democratic Party, National Union of Mineworkers and the ANC have all disagreed with the campaign. The ANC called it “disruptive, reckless and counter-revolutionary” for undermining the struggle to appoint a government by the will of the people. “The African National Congress is further disappointed by the false statement made by former minister Kasrils that he has raised his disgruntlement with the ANC within the structures of the movement, as would have been expected from someone of his stature. It is put on record that at no point were such matters raised within the ANC. This behaviour is typical of Ronnie Kasrils’ historical adventurism, ill-discipline and recklessness,” said party spokesperson Jackson Mthembu in a statement.

Essop Pahad, Minister in the Presidency during Thabo Mbeki’s administration, called it “a desperate anti-ANC campaign in favour of the opposition parties” that will not help the party “correct the mistakes and take steps to fight corruption, factionalism and disunity in the ANC and the Alliance”. In an open letter to Kasrils, Pahad wrote, “The ANC, notwithstanding serious problems within it, remains the most effective instrument to bring about fundamental change and transformation in our country in favour of the poor and workers, the continent and international relations.”

Keith Khoza, from the ANC’s communications team, wrote on Twitter, “Kasrils thinks the ANC owes him something. The ANC made him to be the person he is, it gave him the platform & now he is burning the bridge.”

The campaign has angered the comrades, but there’s also the question of what it will achieve. Kasrils plans to vote, not for the ANC, but isn’t confident enough in any party to advise others to follow. But if people choose to spoil their vote in protest, they are counted among those who do so by accident. And within the proportional representation system, their votes will have little direct impact on election results. “It is not a shake up! Voting for someone else will [shake the ANC],” said veteran journalist Allister Sparks at Tuesday’s launch.

Kasrils admitted the instruction to spoil a vote was contentious, but claimed the campaign’s impact could be measured. Firstly, they encourage “strategic voting”, which will bolster opposition parties (they don’t recommend the DA, however). Secondly, the number of spoiled ballots has been reasonably consistent since 1994 and a large spike in May 2014 would indicate a protest vote. Regarding the personal attacks against him and his new comrades, Kasrils laughed it off: “Little people personalise.”

After the election results come in, political pundits will debate whether the campaign had any impact, but the move from Kasrils and Madlala-Routledge already looks to be a result of a wider phenomenon. After the Congress of the People formed following Mbeki’s recall and with a list of scandals dogging Zuma’s leadership, the ANC’s “broad church” seems to be fragmenting. Islands are breaking off the tectonic plate, particularly on the left.

Kasrils, Madlala-Routledge and Satgar don’t hide their desire for a legitimate anti-capitalist party to support. The difference between the Mbeki and Zuma eras are that political elites (especially Zuma) are now being captured by crony capitalism, said Kasrils. “There were no decisions they took about their own wealth, decisions of greed,” he said on Mbeki’s administration, while admitting there were problems. His sentiments could have come from the National Union of Metalworkers SA (Numsa).

This election, like all those in South Africa since ’94, is about the ANC. Stories about the potential gains of the Economic Freedom Fighters and the DA can’t be told without looking at the governing party. It’s about whether the ANC was cheated of real power, whether it managed to claw it back and benefit the millions oppressed by colonialism and Apartheid, and whether disgruntled members of the party can work within its structures or will sew the seeds of an equal opposition. Like Numsa, Kasrils and co. clearly see no space for their dissent in the current ANC. The question is, how will the fragments realign? DM

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Photo: Ronnie Kasrils at the launch of his campaign, 15 April 2014, Wits University.

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