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South Africa needs electoral and political reform: Lessons from a survivor of the ANC’s Quatro prison camp

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Thamsanqa D Malinga is a writer, columnist and author of ‘Blame Me on Apartheid’.

If Luthando Dyasop and his ANC comrades could be betrayed by their leaders for simply demanding that their movement must reform, when their elected representatives are ignored and classified as dissenters, and democratically elected structures are dissolved and disregarded, then what hope is there for an electorate that used its ballot to call for reform?

Post the local government elections, at the time when the narrative of voter apathy was being paraded, I wrote in detail about the ANC’s destruction of the electoral system to an extent that this created despondency among the electorate. People were despondent, due to the ANC’s arrogance, to such an extent that they were prepared to walk away from the elections and not even bother to try another party. To the voter, elections served no purpose.

My article caught the attention of a former MK combatant and author of Out of Quatro: From Exile to Exoneration, Luthando Dyasop. Dyasop is a veteran of the ANC’s war in support of Angola against Jonas Savimbi’s Unita.

On a sunny Thursday afternoon when the Johannesburg sun was at its harshest, I set off to Noordgesig, a former coloured township settled on the edge of Soweto as you drive in via the Soweto highway. Dyasop was waiting for me as I called him when I was getting lost just a block from his house, he offered to meet me halfway. As I turned the corner, I saw this smiling man with grey hair and yet his body and face do not give his age nor allow you to ponder that.

As we settle on Dyasop’s verandah, I see he had put up three oil paintings that he had painted in 2017. The story behind the paintings would prove intriguing and yet so painful at the same time. It is the story that he chronicles in his book, but I was fortunate that I got to listen to it from the man himself. An accomplished storyteller, Dyasop would often stand up to dramatise the scene as if to transport you to the time and place.

“We wanted reform, and not a rebellion, that is why we put up the banners that said, ‘no to bloodshed, we want only the conference’.” Dyasop narrates how together with his comrades, having been despondent about the ANC and hearing about a place called “Quatro” (an ANC prison in exile), were calling for reform through a conference. “Other comrades of the Luthuli Detachment, like Thembekile ‘Chris’ Hani, had done the same which led to the ANC’s 1969 Morogoro Conference, and we thought that we could achieve the same in 1984. There were lots of issues that needed to be addressed and our end goal was that only an ANC Conference could bring about reform.”

The naïvety of Dyasop and his comrades about the ANC listening to their plea only allowed the movement, for which they had left their homes to take up arms in its fight for liberation, to throw them in a “gulag”. Their call for “political reform” led to them being labelled dissenters and later outcasts — he would later be exonerated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) post his testimony of 25 July 1996.

Dyasop tells me with no iota of regret, no pain in his voice, and with a smile, “I will simply leave the mandate to you to go read more about this in my book.”

Although my meeting with Dyasop was social, his story moved me. I had been corresponding with various columnists and social commentators about the state of our elections and how constitutional democracy suppressed what I call “people’s democracy”. How is it that with no party that has an outright majority to constitute a council, our electoral system ignores the will of the people and simply leaves the mandate to political parties to decide on how to form councils through coalitions?

This then got me thinking about the need for reform of our electoral system where the will of the people is not left to a few individuals, who are ego-based, to determine how their votes are used to constitute councils. Shouldn’t hung municipalities go for re-election?

As a South African voter, I cannot help but feel like Dyasop and his comrades who found themselves suppressed and betrayed by their movement. Our votes were a loud voice that said we want reform in the country, but the electoral system has left us at the mercy of political egos.

Dyasop’s chronicle of his days at the MK camp and betrayal by some of the senior comrades he looked up to is like a scene out of a spy thriller.

“Some are notable comrades whose names are held in high esteem in the country and are regarded as noblemen in the struggle for South Africa, yet in exile, they threw us in jail for demanding reform.” This statement lingered in my head.

If Dyasop and his comrades could be betrayed by their comrades for simply demanding that their movement must reform, and their elected representatives are ignored and classified as dissenters and democratically elected structures by combatants are dissolved and disregarded, then what more for the electorate that had used its ballot to call for reform?

If we are to learn anything from Dyasop’s chronicle of their fight for “reform” it is that those we often entrust with the mandate to lead us and bring about change tend to get too egotistical.

South Africans have, since the dawn of democracy, relied on the electoral system to ensure that their votes that call for the country to “reform” are regarded as their final voice. Our votes have been disregarded. Instead, the electoral body, like the camp commanders that Dyasop told me about, left us at the mercy of political parties — the “notable comrades” that were thought to be above reproach, only became persecutors.

The coalitions that we are seeing post the local government elections are no reform at all. Instead, they are just a scramble for positions that is driven by egos and not a mandate from the masses. In no time their individualistic tendencies will show and masses in the camps will be forgotten as individuals try to secure their livelihoods at the expense of the electorate.

As I finish penning this piece, I share it with Dyasop and his response is no different from the stance he took in 1984 before being sent to Quattro: “At this crucial stage the electorate is being disregarded and its views do not matter at all. It is all about huge egos that are being brushed at the expense of the most important priorities which are service delivery to the people.”

It goes without saying that we need electoral and political reform where the will of the people is put before that of a party. Let us learn from the bravery of Dyasop and his comrades, stand up and engage our institutions like the IEC and the Electoral Court as well as our political parties, and tell them that we need electoral and political reform that gives us more voice. DM

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All Comments 3

  • thank you for this meaningful article. I would humbly suggest that the ANC not only lets it own members down and regarded them as ‘useful idiots’ they have assumed the same of all South Africans.
    my very cloudy crystal ball suggests the ANC will split, hopefully the good guys in the ANC will be in the majority, and the remainder will have to look for other feeding troughs to feed off – which means each other!

  • Thrilled at the demise of the apartheid state we didn’t look very critically at their replacement. There wasn’t much info on their actual deeds and workings Quattro etc. They seemed to embody the hopes for a better life for all.
    We foolishly didn’t demand a roadworthy test and bought the saviour hype. They still try to throw this hype/ stardust in our eyes. But it’s more and more obvious that the movement only cares about the movement. We are a means to their selfish ends

  • We, the voters, decide who gets employed as a politician by voting
    We, in paying tax (even if it is VAT), pay the salaries of the politicians
    That describes voters as the employers of the politicians
    DIRECT DEMOCRACY is a government system that ensures accountability to you, the voter!
    Never again vote for a politician that is not accountable to the voters
    The South African constitution and political system is considered one of the best in the world but worse than other constitutions in some of its content and application.
    – The system lacks in accountability of politicians to the voters.
    – The primary allegiance of proportional representation politicians is to their political party and not to the voters!
    – Many ward councillors see their political party as their first allegiance, not the voter in the ward, the employers of the politicians.
    – The President has too much power
    Our system is effectively a 5-year dictatorship
    We, the voters, are
    – The legitimate shareholders of South Africa, our province and our local government.
    – The employers of our politicians.
    As such, voters should have control over politicians and accountability of the politicians to the voters.
    A direct democracy system is where laws are passed with the electorate in final control, if they decide to exercise that right through referendum, the voters will attain accountability of the politicians to the voters.