Opinionista John McConnachie 26 June 2018

Elections 2019: Why voters are less likely to vote for emergent parties

Within the next year South Africans will go to the polls to elect a new Parliament. New political parties have a habit of coming forward in the pre-election period. One such party was Agang which is still represented in Parliament, but only just. The Agang experience is an object lesson for others who may be thinking about contesting the established parties.

The Agang story is the tale of how a political party with a leader of stature was born with high hopes and ideals but was quickly taken over and destroyed by a mercenary group for their own purposes.

For me, Agang was an alternative to the DA which had been my only political home but which I left before the local government elections of 2011.

After starting my own local independent party which participated in those elections and having learnt some hard lessons, I was under no illusion about the difficulty of taking on the established parties and their ruthlessness in protecting their own interests. The rapid emergence and implosion of Cope served as another warning.

I therefore approached my next political adventure very tentatively over a period of some months and only committed myself after the date of the 2014 elections was announced and I was asked to organise a visit by Agang’s leader, Mamphela Ramphele, to Grahamstown and surrounds.

I was highly impressed by the ease and sincerity with which Ramphele related to people, whatever their standing. There was nothing contrived or affected about it, and I was sold.

Things then moved very quickly. We soon had a branch structure in place and campaigning began in earnest with an enthusiastic group of new Agang volunteers. We made Agang’s presence felt in our own and in neighbouring constituencies.

Little did I know that problems had been surfacing within Agang even before my involvement and that a number of those who were prominent with Ramphele in establishing Agang had already abandoned the cause, seriously weakening and creating a vacuum in its leadership group.

Organisationally, Agang was also struggling and was facing a funding crisis.

Then came the drama over the announcement that Agang had entered into a marriage with the DA. The news was not well received either by Agang or DA supporters. It was a shotgun marriage brokered by a potential funder.

The marriage was consummated with the famous Zille/Ramphele kiss on national TV but the marriage didn’t even survive the honeymoon, with a dispute over what exactly had been agreed on.

Ramphele was cast as the villain who had reneged on the agreement and the damage was done. The negative publicity dogged the rest of Agang’s campaign.

Not long after the DA debacle I became Agang’s national spokesperson and a member of its national executive.

My only contact with the other members of the national executive was during telephone conferences when I quickly became aware that there were tensions within the ranks of the NEC and how dire Agang’s funding issue was.

I also began to get an inkling about some of the other personalities in Agang’s leadership, in particular one Andries Tlouamma who was at that time the party’s deputy chairperson. His wheedling manner with Ramphele didn’t impress me at all and I quickly developed strong misgivings about him. One must always heed one’s instincts but at that stage we were in the final election countdown and had to focus on the campaign.

Tlouamma’s true character fully manifested itself after the announcement of the election results, with an extremely poor showing by Agang, which had won only two seats. I met him briefly at the IEC’s election headquarters on the night of the elections but he disappeared and did not put an appearance at an emergency meeting called by Ramphele early the next morning.

The knives came out for Ramphele shortly afterwards.

Tlouamma orchestrated a revolt against Ramphele with a handful of allies including, at first, Agang’s chairperson, Mike Tshishonga.

Ramphele was ousted as Agang’s leader and replaced by Tshishonga, who was installed with Tlouamma in Agang’s parliamentary seats.

A legal battle then raged between the Tshishonga/Tlouamma faction and the ousted Ramphele loyalists. Tlouamma also engineered the removal of Tshishonga as leader of Agang and from his parliamentary seat, replacing him with a member of his clique, the unknown Koekoe Mahumapelo (not to be confused with Supra Mahumapelo) whose name was not even on Agang’s national list at the time of the elections.

These are just the bare bones of the story and the upshot was that Agang ceased to exist as a party almost immediately after the 2014 elections.

The party was still in its infancy and it is doubtful whether any branch structures still survive. Even the allies who helped to get Tlouamma into the position he now occupies have since realised the error of their ways and deserted him.

When Tlouamma takes the podium for Agang in Parliament he therefore speaks on behalf of a party with no organisational structure or capacity. Agang is a party which exists in name only.

Efforts have been made to bring this to the attention of Parliament and to the IEC but have been ignored.

Attempts have also been made to prompt leaders of other parties legitimately represented in Parliament to raise questions regarding the status of Agang and its parliamentary representatives but they don’t seem interested.

The lesson of the Agang experience is that start-up parties attract opportunists looking for short-term gain and agents provocateurs whose intention is to disrupt and destabilise. Even more threatening, they could be saboteurs who are planted to destroy emergent parties which could become a threat to the established parties.

As a result, democracy is the poorer because voters are less likely to support emergent parties in future elections, no matter how promising they look. Let’s call it “the Tlouamma effect”. DM

John McConnachie is a practising advocate and a member of the Grahamstown Bar. He was Agang’s national spokesperson at the time of the previous national and provincial elections.

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