Al Jama-ah finds the spotlight of national politics perhaps too bright for its liking
With a proliferation of smaller parties appealing to narrow cultural, religious and linguistic elements of voters’ identities, it is important to examine how they will be judged by voters. One of the most high-profile smaller parties is Al Jama-ah, because it currently holds the mayorship of Johannesburg.
Al Jama-ah appeals directly to a religious identity. But if it seems to be unable to improve the lives of those who voted for it, and if it appears to be more focused on position and power than its supporters’ benefits, it could pay a heavy price. Particularly if it turns out that Kabelo Gwamanda was involved in illegal activity before becoming a councillor, and loses an upcoming vote of no confidence as a result.
Al Jama-ah describes itself as a party for people of the Islamic faith (its name is often translated as “congregation” in English). It was formed in 2009, but it was only in 2019 that it won a seat in the National Assembly. This was part of a political shift where voters’ identities began to play a more significant role in determining their choice of support at the polls. (In the same elections, the FF+ and the IFP won bigger shares of the vote than in the previous election.)
But the party is currently the subject of much public discussion because of its role in Joburg’s administration.
In a strange political dynamic where the ANC and the EFF collaborate but do not vote for each other’s councillors as mayors, Al Jama-ah’s Thapelo Amad was elected as mayor of South Africa’s largest city and, after he resigned, the party’s Kabelo Gwamanda filled the position.
On Sunday, the Sunday Times reported that the Financial Sector Conduct Authority confirmed that Gwamanda had run a funeral insurance business without having permission to do so. He denies this.
The report appears to confirm claims first made in public by the then DA caucus leader in Joburg, Mpho Phalatse that are now the basis of the no-confidence vote called for by ActionSA.
However, there are other strange elements to Gwamanda, who is surely Al Jama-ah’s most high-profile leader.
He appears to disagree with one of the most important elements of the party’s identity.
Two weeks ago, Al Jama-ah’s official spokesperson, Shameemah Salie, gave an interview to Newzroom Afrika that can only be described as a puzzling display of prejudice and homophobia.
The party had issued a statement claiming that members of the LGBTQIA+ community should not be allowed to give input into the government’s planned policy on families.
In the interview, Salie claimed that members of this community “have what we call an internal jihad. They have an internal difficulty, they are at war within themselves as to how they perceive themselves. In their insecurity, they are trying to push their agendas on other people.”
She based this entirely on her reading of her religion, the religion upon which the party is based.
However, Gwamanda has a completely different view.
When he was asked about this issue on SAfm, he gave what can only be described as a comprehensive rebuttal of Salie’s comments.
‘We are all human beings’
He said, “As a political party, you would understand it subscribes to Islamic people. But it’s not the custodian of the religion itself. So, constitutionally, we comply with what is expected of a political party to function.”
He went on, “I’m not Muslim, in fact I believe strongly in my African traditions, and because Al Jama-ah is a political party, it accommodates me in a way that makes me feel welcome. So I don’t think a political party has in itself a discriminatory position on gays and lesbians, because we are all human beings.
“As far as I’m concerned, as the mayor of Joburg, understanding the social construct of the city, I have gay and lesbian friends, some of them councillors in council, and we work well together and I don’t see them in a different light. And I see them as human beings.”
There is much to look at here.
The first is that one of the hardest things for any politician to do is to oppose in public the policy of their own party. And yet Gwamanda did that, did it very eloquently, and was not afraid to do it. Considering that he was almost deliberately kept away from public view in his first weeks as mayor, it leads to questions about why he did not do interviews in public much earlier. It could have changed how people see him.
This suggests that either some around him made an important political mistake, or that he received the most intense media training available.
But that still does not explain the political dynamic here.
It is certainly curious that a political party set up to serve the interests of people of a particular faith has given its most important public position to someone who is not of that faith.
Then there is the fact that he takes issue with a statement issued by the party.
It suggests that perhaps the party’s leadership did not know much about their own councillor.
This may be supported by what happened when the funeral scam claims were first made against him. Instead of denying the claims, the party’s leader, Ganief Hendricks, said that he had not done a background check on Gwamanda but that the ANC had.
This appears to have been an admission that Hendricks himself does not know Gwamanda’s history. Is it possible that his beliefs on LGBTQIA+ came as a shock to Hendricks?
If it transpires that Gwamanda is guilty of wrongdoing related to the funeral business, it will imply that Hendricks has no knowledge of his own party members. It would also suggest that ANC background checks cannot be trusted.
Limitations to Hendricks’ leadership
Hendricks may battle to boost his party’s support for various other reasons.
While it is no easy task to create a party and win a seat in the National Assembly (as several parties may find to their disappointment next year), there are likely to be limitations to Hendricks’ leadership.
The former Al Jama-ah mayor of Joburg, Thapelo Amad, resigned on the eve of a no-confidence vote called after a train-smash interview with the SABC’s Sakina Kamwendo.
Instead of dealing with the criticism of Amad, Hendricks said in several interviews that he wanted the SABC board (when it was finally appointed) to take action against Kamwendo. He appeared to be trampling on editorial independence, simply because his own member could not answer relatively simple questions, and then resigned.
All of this leads to questions about how voters will see the party next year. If service delivery continues to decline in the city, will people who have voted for Al Jama-ah in the past vote for it again?
Or will they see the party as more interested in its own power and, should Gwamanda be found guilty of wrongdoing, helping people who are corrupt?
This is a crucial question which gets to the heart of a bigger issue in our politics, about whether the politics of identity is more important than service delivery.
It’s also about accountability.
One of the strongest dynamics in our society is that people with smallanyana skeletons who rise to national prominence are often found out. Just ask the former Tshwane mayor, Murunwa Makwarela. For people from smaller parties who suddenly find themselves in the national spotlight, this can be a difficult moment. Their opponents with information about their past have an easy path to many platforms eager to publish it.
If it is true that smaller parties are going to play a more prominent role in our politics, in the local, provincial and national spheres, then the story of Al Jama-ah contains a very important warning to them to organise their houses and get their stories straight. DM