Braving the heat and dust of politics

South Africa’s new political parties, some of them wonderfully wacky but always serious, may have lost the elections battle but their spirit has not died, reports Anne Eveleth

AN amazing array of new parties entered the April election only weeks before the poll. Most were laughed off as “joke” contenders and few scored high enough to get into parliament. But un-daunted by the failures and the frustrations, most say they are not prepared to give up the fight.

African Muslim Party: The party has managed to keep a public profile for itself as its leader, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, has kept himself busy shipping hospitals to Bosnia and outfoxing government initiatives to send aid to Rwanda in his capacity as national organiser of the Gift of the Givers Foundation.
A major advocate of prefabricated ... well, anything, Sooliman’s latest challenge is to bring “primary health containers” to rural areas in support of the reconstruction and development programme—not to mention pre-schools and spaza shops.

Pietermaritzburg-based Sooliman’s get-up-and-go attitude has also helped iron out the political wrinkles in the Muslim political arena. In August, the Islamic Party joined the AMP and leaders from both parties were elected to top posts at the party’s first national conference last month. “We now want to consolidate our support in Gauteng, kwaZulu/Natal and the Western Cape and are preparing to contest local government elections ... we are also making some inroads in the Eastern Case and former Ciskei,” says Sooliman.

But he says his party doesn’t want to rush things. “We are very strict about the kind of people we take for leaders. Unfortunately, we had some people with bad character flaws—adulterers and drug-dealers and people with bad conduct—who we had to get rid of when we found out.” Sooliman says the AMP will do much better in 1999 but adds: “We are not interested in power, we just want to promote good principles.”

Green Party: Still irked by the Independent Electoral Commission’s failure to cough up the R50 000 to R80 000 his party was expecting for election funds, Green Party Cape Town organiser Richard McCarthy says the Greens’ failure will not stop the fight to cure South Africa’s environmental woes through the “controlled” development and decriminalisation of hemp. That’s right—dagga, marijuana, ganja—but unfortunately for all those tokers out there, it’s not the high the Greens are interested in.

Operating in small municipality-based groups, McCarthy says his party aims to tackle ozone depletion, forest destruction, pollution, and unemployment (as well as the herbicides police spray on dagga crops).

“The law says you can’t even use hemp to make ethynol - - an alternative fuel source. How can they justify that when you see this thick yellow cloud of sulphur in the air every day?” asks McCarthy.

“We cut down 4,5 hectares of woodland to get the same amount of paper as from one hectare of hemp. Yet the police go around using damaging crop sprays which kill all the vegetation and just drive the farmers into the protected areas,” he adds.

While McCarthy stresses that each municipal group of the party is working on its own issues, he feels that most of them come back to this one. “We don’t want to legalise drugs, because then the big cigarette companies would just come in and profit from people’s habits, but think about how many people smoke because they’re unemployed—how much better it would be if they could grow and sell fuel.” McCarthy says the Greens are gearing up to go national next time around but cannot say how well they would fare.

“Unfortunately we aren’t all political scientists like the Democratic Party, so we don’t have clue. We don’t even like party politics but that is the game at the moment so we’ll have to play it for now.”

Federal Party: Formed by author Francis Kendall, who says she is “incredibly disappointed” with the Inkatha Freedom Party’s failure to push the federalist agenda forward, the FP is learning fast what it meant by “the heat and dust of politics”.

“We’re involved in local government negotiating structures but the Johannesburg Metro is like a bloodbath,” says Kendall.

Not completely sure about participating in local elections next year, or nationally in 1999, a frustrated Kendall says her natural optimism has been overshadowed by the realisation that “the people who are rising to the top are only interested in position”.

After losing out in the April poll, Kendall says she isn’t sure there will be a role for her party in five years’ time after the constitution—federal or not—is finalised. But she adds that there are all sorts of possibilities as new alignments—possibly a splintering of the ANC—take place.

Having mortgaged her house to make up the funding shortfall after the IEC’s R800 000 dried up, Kendall says the election and the rigours of political life have been exhausting.

“We’re still active, but I think we’re a party of idealists who are getting our fingers burnt on reality.”

The Realists: After entering the race to give a political home to supporters of the IFP and Freedom Front during their boycott, head Realist Danie Bosman says his party “is a little down at this stage”.

Having joined forces at the last minute with the FP, the Realists are biding their time before deciding whether to sink their teeth into the 1999 poll. Bosman keeps busy running his Pot-pie take-away in Pretoria in between local government battles and bidding for the creation of community councils, or civics groups in the predominately white areas he represents.

After throwing his lot in with the FP, Bosman feels some responsibility for Kendall’s financial woes: “If you have some money you want to give us, we’d be very grateful because we’re still a little short from the last election.”

Keep it Straight and Simple Party (Kiss): This (nearly) one-woman show has closed down temporarily, but Claire Emary says she’s not a write-off yet. Planning to kick- start her campaign to limit government taxation to a 10 percent Value Added Tax sometime in 1997, Emary has no plans to contest local government elections. “They are a dead end. With all the squabbling going on, I’m surprised we’ve ever had them before.” But Emary was never really interested in the smaller races—her party with its list of eight candidates didn’t contest any provincial races either: “If you’re going to join the circus, you might as well be in the the centre ring where you can crack the whip.” Emary says she’s had some successes and feels Kiss could have done better “if we hadn’t been raided by the big parties”.

After paying back her husband the R104 000 he lent her for the campaign—by selling him back her shares in his electrical business—Emary wants a break from the rat race.

“I just want to enjoy the lazy life I have here. I travel a lot and jol a lot and have a good time.” But Emary believes her ideas of limiting government are right and sees a world trend emerging in support of them.

“Let’s face it, if you believe in honesty in any relationship, you have to cut the crap.”

South African Women’s Party: According to election-days organiser Susan Millard (who has since sort-of resigned because she holds an Irish passport), SAWP is “still trying to set up an office and still trying to make our opinions known and (still) trying to keep the communication lines open with people in office”.

Millard says SAWP’s big project at the moment is “agitating” for the creation of a women’s council—or for members of the majority gender with a slightly less adversarial stomach—a “ladies council” where a strict code of conduct would prevent the “ladies” from bringing political squabbles to the fore.

She says SAWP hasn’t decided whether to contest local government elections, but may give it up in order to convince the government they could be non-partisan in the ladies council.

Millard says she doesn’t see herself on the political landscape in 1999, but urges “everyone” to try politics.

“Not only is it fun, it can be a very rewarding profession.

Anyone can start a party, why not the Disgruntled Housewives Party—or a Men’s Party?” But as for SAWP in 1999, Millard says “it will depend on how much we are accommodated—the bottom line is we want what we want”.

Women’s Rights for Peace Party: After an exhauting election shouldered mostly by half a dozen dedicated feminists, artist and WRPP leader Nina Romm says she and her party faithful are “watching and waiting” before they decide how to overcome their election defeat.

“There is a window of opportunity that comes up once in a while and then fades away. We still have to decide whether it has already faded for South African women and women’s liberation is now going to come about piecemeal here the way it has in the rest of Africa,” said Romm.

She is disappointed in all the women who know about the track record of liberation movements on women’s rights and who said a women’s party was a good idea, but chose to “take care of liberation this time around”. Romm says this “dual loyalty” has been the major obstacle to women’s rights throughout the world, and fears women in the government will be too afraid to say the ANC has failed women.

“Already the signs are there—when only two women were appointed to the cabinet, those women should have screamed that we were promised a third of seats. Same thing in the Constitutional Court.” Romm says she is furious with signs that the ANC is already backing away from its election promise of pro-choice abortion legislation, but just doesn’t know whether women will be willing to buck the system next time around.

“But politics isn’t about elections anyway. It’s about people working for issues they believe in and not waiting for somebody else to do it.”

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