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Activist Zackie Achmat positions independent candidacy as critical ‘movement’ beyond politics

Activist Zackie Achmat positions independent candidacy as critical ‘movement’ beyond politics
Independent candidate, Zackie Achmat. 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / NIC BOTHMA)

For the first time, independent candidates are eligible to stand as MPs in the upcoming elections. Among them is Zackie Achmat, a lifelong activist who has been surprised by not only the amount of young people who have shown their support but also the grannies whom he’d thought would be more loyal to existing parties. 

After getting the support of 4,000 volunteers and R11-million and counting campaign spend, it is now up to voters to determine if independent candidate Zackie Achmat will be representing them in Parliament.

The veteran campaigner — who has started social movements and has now shifted to politics — is among several independent candidates hoping to find themselves in Parliament after Wednesday’s general elections.

Speaking as he wrapped up campaign efforts, Achmat said what’s surprised him most was the support he’s received in his campaign, which started last year.

“Surprising to me during the campaign politically is two things stand out: one is the number of youth that have joined the movement, it’s exceptional and they really are exceptional young people,” said Achmat.

“The second is the grannies…the gogos was who I expected would have a much greater loyalty to the ANC and the pain that people have gone through.”

Zackie Achmat

Independent candidate Zackie Achmat during an elections debate in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town. 21 May 2024. (Photo: Suné Payne)

Achmat’s name will be listed on the so-called regional ballot (the second orange ballot), where voters in the Western Cape will have a chance to vote for him to get to Parliament.

For the first time, independent candidates will be allowed to contest for seats in Parliament, with 11 candidates throwing their hats into the race. These include controversial diamond trader and confessed racist Louis Liebenberg (who will be contesting in Free State and Gauteng), former Cope member Anele Mda (contesting in Gauteng) and of course, Achmat.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 

Logistics and signatures 

But this campaign hasn’t been plane sailing for Achmat. Jennifer Walker the campaign manager, explained R11-million had been spent so far on the campaign and the costs were still climbing.

Thus far, the campaign featured 4,000 volunteers, 500 leaders, 50 organisers and 13 office campaign staff.

Walker explained some logistical nightmares, most notably the signatures required for Achmat’s eligibility. A little over a year ago, before rulings of the Constitutional Court allowed for independent candidates to stand, Walker explained, “We had to make the decision to start campaigning at that point with what we knew and it was a tough decision to make because the barriers to entry are very high”.

She continued, “And at that stage, we were still aiming just to qualify to get onto the ballot. We were looking at 13,201 signatures within the Western Cape”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections hub

Walker explained that a lot of last year’s focus was on gathering signatures and putting a process in place to do so, as by that point, there was no set target.

Zackie Achmat

Zackie Achmat, pictured in Cape Town. (Photo:

“And on the very same day that the IEC or at least the Constitutional Court made their announcement to revert back to 1,000 signatures being the requirement…it was the same day we hit our target,” she said.

Walker went further to say they got beyond 15,000 signatures.

“However, had we known a little sooner, we could have spent a lot of that time, money, effort, resources on actually mobilising on educating and you know, the actual work that we want to get to.”

The next challenge was funding and how funding reports would be handled for independent candidates. Achmat publicly disclosed who funds his campaign on his website.

For someone like Achmat, this campaign has meant much more than his initial goals of fixing commuter rail, rebuilding a People’s Parliament, sitting on public accounts committees to question where money comes from, ensuring working-class communities get access to affordable renewable energy sources and building a capable South African Social Security Agency (Sassa).

Addressing a final media briefing on Friday 24 May, Achmat said even more issues and needs came to light when speaking to people, namely:

  • more mental health support;
  • better access to transportation for those living with disabilities; and
  • support for neighbourhood watch structures in poorer communities.

Achmat described his journey in standing as a candidate as ‘historic’ — but often during the briefing, he referred to it as a ‘movement’ — apt for someone who has helped found some of the country’s best known human rights organisations such as Equal Education, Ndifuna Ukwazi and #UniteBehind.

zackie achmat

If elected to Parliament, Zackie Achmat says he will focus on four key issues: Fixing the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, Eskom and the South African Social Security Agency. He also wants a seat on the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, Parliament’s public purse watchdog. (Photo: Jay Caboz)

‘Not only about the political movement’

Campaign chair Zukie Vuka described the campaign process as beyond just politics. “It’s not only about the political moment and the importance of participating in voting and in democracy… And it’s not really because a lot of people, when they see the purple t-shirts, they immediately think, oh God, another political party, it’s not an attempt to build a new political party”.

She added, “We’re building a movement and we’re building a movement that is going to exist even beyond the ballot,”.

When Daily Maverick asked Achmat how he felt about being a politician in this election in comparison to his position as an activist in SA’s first democratic election, he said: “From 1994, all the organisations I’ve ever worked in believed that government would do the right thing”.

“All you needed to do was pressure it from outside… We believe that there should be accountability and the ANC must become accountable… We believe that programmes are a problem and that needed to be changed and just needed to be implemented properly” he said.

However, Achmat added, “But the truth is none of us really paid attention to power and politics and so what is different for me now is the fact that I’m encouraging young people and community organisations to get directly involved in politics and political powers”.

“Because unless communities do that, particularly working-class communities, our country is lost,” he added. DM


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