ROAD TO 2024 ELECTIONS INTERVIEW
Expect some changes if activist Zackie Achmat gets a seat in Parliament next year
Veteran activist Zackie Achmat says the last thing he ever wanted to do in his almost 40 years of public life was to go to Parliament. However, he recently put his hand up as an independent candidate for the 2024 general elections. His goal is simple: to bring Parliament back to the people.
‘I am going to be there with the woman who queues at Sassa… I am going to be there with young people who want to know why they cannot get on a train safely. Those are the people I am going to Parliament with. I am not going to Parliament alone,” said Abdurrazack “Zackie” Achmat about his campaign for a seat in next year’s election.
Achmat intends to run as an independent candidate in the 2024 elections, the first time independents will be allowed to run for Parliament.
He sat down with Daily Maverick to talk about his campaign.
“I’ve had 47 years in public life… The last thing I wanted to do was to go anywhere near Parliament,” he said.
“The way Parliament operated and continues to operate has become totally unethical… corrupt in many ways. [There’s a] failure to do any real oversight of ministries, of state-owned entities and municipalities,” said Achmat.
If elected to Parliament, he says he will focus on four key issues: fixing the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), the state power utility Eskom and the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa). He also wants a seat on Parliament’s public purse watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa).
‘A functioning state helps working-class people’
“I don’t have a grand vision for the country. I’m not going to promise to end unemployment, because I think in our lifetime that’s virtually an impossibility given where mechanisation is going; given where Artificial Intelligence is going.”
A grand vision, he said, was a discussion that must be had in Parliament, in society and at union level.
Instead, the conversation needed to turn to a basic income for people, including the middle class, argued Achmat.
“Middle-class people are going to lose their jobs because AI will do medicine, accountancy… all those jobs are under serious threat,” he said.
Both pragmatically and as a slogan, Achmat said he wished every political party and every person who contests the elections would “agree to one thing: Fix the state, fix the state, fix the state. Repeat it a million times”.
Achmat said, for example, that the job of MPs who sit on water and sanitation oversight committees “is not to sleep day and night … but to fix the water crisis in the Free State and now in Gauteng and so on”.
Prasa, Eskom and Sassa
“With Prasa I have a depth of experience,” he said about his directorship role at #UniteBehind, a civil society coalition that mobilises on issues of common ground.
A strong focus of #UniteBehind is Prasa, with the goal of fixing the country’s struggling rail network for commuters.
“At the same time, I’m learning about electricity. I don’t know enough, but I do know renewables are critical to our society,” he said.
Achmat said he wanted MPs to sit up at night and ask what they were doing to fix the grid.
He said if he had the time, he’d also like to sit on the health committee.
And he wants to bring pensioners to Parliament so that they can ventilate their struggles.
“I will work with people on Sassa and I want to be in Scopa. I’ll raise all Sassa’s criminality in Scopa and then go to the Appropriations Committee and say, cut their money here and give more money there. Then go to the Social Development committee and say, bring these people in to give evidence as to what is happening,” he added.
Bringing people to the National Assembly harkens back to Achmat’s days in the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) when organisers took people living with HIV to Parliament to testify about their lived realities.
“It’s not just taking people as victims, but it’s ensuring that people have the knowledge of what can be done and to give that knowledge to Parliament and to put the right type of pressure,” he said.
Achmat was one of the founders of the TAC in Cape Town on 10 December 1998.
A lifetime in activism
Achmat is a lifelong activist, starting in 1976 when he helped set fire to his school during the student uprisings. He had been a member of the ANC since 1980 while in prison and remained a member of the liberation movement after South Africa became a democratic country in 1994.
However, he is no longer a member of the ruling party. “I can’t remember when I left. Was it 2003 or 2006 or 2007?”
In 1998, on the steps of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, Achmat and a group of 15 people founded the TAC to demand medical treatment for people living with the virus that causes Aids.
The TAC campaigned to force drug companies to reduce the costs of life-saving drugs for HIV-positive people. Achmat led a campaign that would shame the Mbeki administration into putting its denialist views aside and making medication available to the poor.
But while Achmat had been respected in the civil society sector, in 2018 he was accused of covering up sexual harassment claims against Equal Education co-founder Doron Isaacs.
Achmat was chairperson of the board at the time and he denied any wrongdoing in the Mail and Guardian’s investigation into the matter. In November 2018, both Achmat and Isaacs were cleared of wrongdoing in a report by retired Judge Kathleen Satchwell.
How will he fund his campaign?
Achmat hopes people will donate to his campaign, but he admits that “working-class people and the middle class are under severe economic stress. So I will take money from people who are capitalists”.
Achmat made it clear he wouldn’t accept money from people in the fossil fuel, arms or pharmaceutical industries.
“But I will take money from rich people – and they must sign a contract with me: no favours asked. You don’t ask me for favours. I will not give you favours … that’s in the contract, and when your interests come up in Parliament – even if I agree with it – I’m going to abstain unless it’s desperately necessary for working-class people to have that,” he said.
Achmat wants his position to be seen as “one of integrity and not one of doing favours”.
As an ordinary member of Parliament, Achmat would earn almost R1.2-million a year, plus a range of benefits.
Can he succeed?
So what are his chances of gaining one of the 400 seats in the National Assembly?
On 17 April 2023, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed into law the Electoral Amendment Bill, which allows for changes to the Electoral Act enabling independents to contest elections. But the bill is confusing in its current form, says researcher at My Vote Counts Letlhogonolo Letshele.
Read in GroundUp: How will next year’s elections work? It’s confusing
Elections analyst Wayne Sussman told Daily Maverick: “Of the independent candidates running in 2024, I think Zackie Achmat is probably one of the best or second-best positioned to get a seat in Parliament for a variety of reasons – he’s a very capable organiser… he’s well known in Cape Town.”
Achmat is likely to attract voters who voted for Brett Herron and the GOOD party in the 2021 local government elections, said Sussman.
“He is a good fundraiser as well, and a very talented grassroots organiser. He’ll capture media attention and he’ll run a disciplined and focused campaign.” DM
This article was updated on 9 May 2023 to reflect that Doron Isaacs was cleared of wrongdoing in a report by retired Judge Kathleen Satchwell.