Defend Truth


Big hype around upstart parties contesting elections, but hype is not votes


Wiseman Zondi is a writer and analyst. He is a 2022 Rhodes Scholar, and writes about political language, sexuality and mental health.

It is easy to form a party off the strength of one prominent political figure’s name. The party will not struggle to get media coverage and will have some sense of brand recognition. But what happens when the media hype dies down, as it inevitably will?

As we head into the 2024 national and provincial elections, we at least know one thing is certain: The ANC, DA and EFF will receive the lion’s share of public attention and debate. Rightfully so, because the parties combined constitute the vast majority of the country’s sentiments, as the last general election results show.

However, we would be remiss not to consider the influx of political parties that have formed since 2019. Some of them are vanity projects designed to give their founders the spotlight. Some of them are ploys to spread discriminatory and hateful ideologies. But some are politically viable engines that have the potential to play pivotal roles in our country.

It is rare to have this many viable contenders in an electoral race in our country’s history, and because of this, voters are spoilt for choice. One way or another, this is also the “Election of the Upstart Party”.

Upstart parties are born out of a deep dissatisfaction with the current political terrain. This not only includes the governing party, but opposition parties as well. For whatever reason, the main opposition parties are not able to be real contenders for the ANC’s throne.

Not real enough to win an outright majority in the national elections, anyway.

This is why the national conversation has centred on a possible coalition government rather than unseating the ANC from political power.

It is in this environment that these new political parties attempt to flourish. This is why upstart parties are upstarts – they come from everywhere and nowhere to get our interest and, maybe, our votes.

If they are wise, they will avoid the sins of the DA and the EFF, among other opposition parties. They would also do well to learn from what these parties have done right to attain and maintain a lucrative spot in our political world.

In many ways, it has never been easier to form a political party. But in many other ways, it has never been harder to maintain the momentum that comes with leading a party.

Some upstart parties will come, some will go as soon as the dust clears from the election. To be part of the former, here are a few pointers they can heed in order to remain relevant and successful in politics after 2024:

1 Have a message that speaks to the concerns of South Africans

A political party that has staying power is not one that is beholden to the present moment. This is because the present moment is fleeting; it is a moment that seems to be on its way out.

Specifically, simply saying “the ANC has failed, the main opposition parties have failed, and therefore I am stepping in” is a good emotional impetus for a leader to think about how to best serve their country. But it is not a real basis for a party that aims to go the distance.

While there is an element of populism baked into the practice of politics… it is wise not to sacrifice human morality for the almighty vote.

As an opposition party, it is impossible not to mention the ANC. That is true. However, there is a reason that Cope was a flash in the pan, and that the EFF still sets tongues wagging more than a decade after its formation.

Both were ANC breakaway parties. But one was incessantly focused on how they couldn’t, well, cope with the ANC under Jacob Zuma. The other decided to craft a view of society that immediately grabbed the attention of the electorate. Like or hate the EFF, they are clear on their objectives. Their 260-page election manifesto is but one example of this.

What does the uMkhonto Wesizwe party stand for?

What does Xiluva stand for?

What are these parties’ unique selling points that will still be relevant a decade from now?

These parties (and those like them) would do well to consider these questions.

2 Don’t pray at the altar of a single political personality

Related to this, I have yet to truly understand what value Build One South Africa (Bosa) brings to South African politics, outside of having Mmusi Maimane as its leader.

Similarly, what would uMkhonto Wesizwe be if former president Jacob Zuma, god forbid, died?

It is easy to form a party off the strength of one prominent political figure’s name. The party will not struggle to get media coverage and will have some sense of brand recognition. But what happens when the media hype dies down, as it inevitably will?

Agang South Africa was built purely and squarely on businesswoman Mamphela Ramphele’s belief that she’d make a good political leader. As soon as she distanced herself from it, the remnants of the party were completely irrelevant to the South African electorate. This is why “Agang” joins “Cope” as buzzwords to signal parties that were all hype but had zero substance when push came to shove.

3 Have party branches and structures… that work

One way to avoid an “Agang” or a “Cope” is to have a clear party structure that is responsible for holding people to account. It seems trite to say, but political parties that succeed have a presence all over the country. The reason Christopher Pappas is the mayor of the uMngeni Municipality is because the DA had a branch there. DA members were in tune with the community’s needs, and this contributed significantly to Pappas being afforded the opportunity to be the uMngeni mayor, despite being a white gay man in a rural part of the country.

Homophobia or xenophobia on their own are not sustainable election campaigns when the cost of living is unmanageable for most households or when power cuts are spelling the end for small businesses.

Branches are painstakingly difficult to create. This is especially true for new political parties which have no track record to speak of. They not only have to get people to vote for them, they also have to get people in an area to devote their time, energy and resources to the party. And then they must recreate this all over South Africa.

This is by far the hardest part of being an upstart political party. However, the benefits are enormous. Subsequent political campaigns become easier, as there is a ready-made political base that is in tune with the community and knows how to engage with them in relevant ways.

A community leader who works hard in their ward is a much better advertisement for a party than a member of Parliament making a one-off appearance to extol the virtues of their party to a people they have no connection to. Once enough parties understand this, they will be in a better position to ensure their longevity.

4 Resist the cheat code of populist politics

Former president Zuma, in his capacity as (apparent?) uMkhonto Wesizwe spokesperson, recently made a homophobic comment. To my knowledge, no member of the party has repudiated his statements, so it wouldn’t be unfair to believe that these are party-sanctioned views. What does this mean for members of the LGBTQIA+ community who want to vote for the MK party? And what would their place be if the party were to govern the country?

Pure, unfettered populism has a short shelf life. While there is an element of populism baked into the practice of politics – one wants to receive more votes than all the others so they can assume political power – it is wise not to sacrifice human morality for the almighty vote. The main reason is that it’s not what the electorate wants.

By and large, South African voters want to experience a better quality of life. Topics such as mass unemployment, the energy crisis and the provision of essential goods and services affect us all. So these are what voters most want to hear about from political parties, new and old.

If populism worked as a winning political strategy, we would see a Freedom Front Plus, ACDP or Azapo government. Other countries may have a problem with right-wing populism threatening the very fabric of their democracies, but South Africa isn’t quite there. Whether this will remain the case is an open question.

In any case, it is true that populism might be a cheat code to obtaining political relevance as quickly as possible. Gutter politics can be entertaining, as the Patriotic Alliance recently proved as they “patrolled” the Limpopo River to prevent Zimbabweans from entering South Africa. However, they are unlikely to translate to votes – I can bet good money that the PA’s share of the national vote will prove this.

Homophobia or xenophobia on their own are not sustainable election campaigns when the cost of living is unmanageable for most households or when power cuts are spelling the end for small businesses.

Upstart parties would do well to go the long way around and earn our votes through policies and rhetoric that are in line with the values of the Constitution. Alienating people has never been a good campaign strategy, in the long run — especially in a system where political power is obtained by appealing to the people.

5 Is party politics the best way to go?

The lack of good political leadership has been our collective downfall – not just in the sense that people are more disillusioned with the government than ever before, but also in the sense that people are racing, by the dozens, to seek political power.

The Roger Jardine-led Change Starts Now party is a prime example of this. Leaders, predominantly from civil society organisations, decided to form a political party out of pure disappointment with the current electoral order (even though they have announced that they will not contest the upcoming elections, thus giving them more time to get their ducks in a row as a party finding its feet).

But why politics? What’s wrong with civil society?

Civil society is a necessary cog in the democratic machine. Unfortunately, many civil society organisations have been subject to cruel, baseless attacks by those in government. However, that does not negate the importance of civil society. In fact, it reveals why it is needed in the first place – we need observers not motivated by political incentives to take the government to task for its failure to govern.

Why not use those talents to be an evergreen presence in the political landscape? Why make the leap to politics, especially in a period of oversaturation in the political marketplace?

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

The same can be said for Songezo Zibi’s Rise Mzansi. Almost all the faces of the party (including Zibi) are making their first foray into politics, after stints in other sectors. But why party politics specifically? There are wonderful initiatives that are politics-adjacent, such as the Ground Work Collective and Futurelect.

It is admirable to want to make the political system work better, and for it to work for more people. But the thought should at least be entertained: Is leading a political party the best use of the skills and experience of these folks?

Upstart parties: Just what our democracy needs?

The post-election fallout will reveal many things about the progress that the democratic order has made since its inception three decades ago. The current governing party stands a real chance of failing to obtain an outright majority, and that opens the door for a possible coalition government. This in itself places the country on the precipice of history. In that sense, 2024 may very well be our 1994.

However, the upstart parties are the force that may actually reverberate through the electoral landscape, long after the 2024 elections. If the era of the upstart party continues, and these parties are truly able to capture the imagination of the electorate, then our democratic future might just be in good hands. DM


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  • ST ST says:

    Agree Wiseman. I don’t think these wanna be political leaders, the so called current political leaders and significant portions of the society realise that we are in the precipice of life changing events in the next few months. If we do realise, we are probably too tired, too traumatised, and too stuck in unnecessary squabbles to save ourselves from the impending doom. Everyone is on edge and ready for a fight, protecting their own. But really…no one wants to live in fear, poor, desperate, and hungry. No one wants to die over stupid political or tribal rivalries. Most of us want peace.

    South Africa’s home and abroad long for a better SA that deep down no matter where they are still call home. Civil duty needed. Now more than ever. Not more political parties. Main political parties need to grow up and fill the boots of great leaders.

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