/ 1 May 2014

It’s my party – it’ll die if I go too

​Minority Front leader Shameen Thakur-Rajbansi speaks at her husband Amichand Rajbansi's memorial.
​Minority Front leader Shameen Thakur-Rajbansi speaks at her husband Amichand Rajbansi's memorial.

The Raj is dead, long live the Raj. Amichand Rajbansi continues to rule from the grave, almost literally. He remains the face of the party and is an apparent vote-magnet three years after his death.

On posters and the party website, the Bengal Tiger is still the dominant figure of the Minority Front. Rajbansi is one of the founding leaders who have dominated their respective parties amid declining electoral performance. In some cases, the presence of these founding leaders has bred contempt, division and splinter groups.

Pixley Ka Seme, one of the key founders of the ANC (then the South African Native National Congress) in 1912, became its president-general only 18 years later. But, the Pan Africanist Congress battled to fully recover from the arrest and subsequent death of its founding president, Robert Sobukwe.

A party can either die with the founder, or the founder’s spirit can continue to guide it. Or, the founder can overshadow the party, as was the case with the Raj or Nelson Mandela in the ANC.

Political commentator Max du Preez described the former effect as the “Jonas Savimbi phenomenon”. “Unita [National Union for the Total Independence of Angola] was strong for decades,” he said. “But the day Savimbi was killed, it died with him”.

Like the Minority Front posters, the South African Communist Party is trying to appeal to voters’ emotions by urging them to “do it for Madiba”.

In honour
Minority Front leader Shameen Thakur-Rajbansi said the decision to feature the dead man’s face on the posters was taken by the party’s national executive committee in honour of her late husband.

While she admitted that his face was “widely recognisable”, she said that it was not the motivation for using it on posters.

“Everyone knows that he is late now … other faces will also grow [become popular] and in the next election, it will be a completely different story.”

Thakur-Rajbansi said it was not true that her late husband had been bigger than the party. Two to three years before his death, the Raj had been nurturing a new set of about six or seven leaders, including herself.

Under the Rajbansis, the party participated in all four previous general elections, and achieved between 0% and 0.35% of the vote.

But, dynastic dominance of political parties is not unique to South Africa. The Castros have dominated Cuba and its Communist Party for half a century, while the Gandhis have influenced India and the Indian National Congress, commonly known as the Congress, for seven decades.

Rahul Gandhi, the congress’s presidential candidate in the current elections, is the princeling of the Gandhi dynasty. He is the son, grandson and great-grandson of India’s past prime ministers and founder. His mother, Sonia, who refused to become prime minister in 2004, leads the congress.

Rejected resignation
Back home, the Meshoes dominate the African Christian Democratic Party. The 21-year-old party has never had any other leader than the Reverend Kenneth Meshoe. However, Meshoe said that whenever he had tried to resign as party leader, its national executive committee had rejected the resignation.

This is despite the party not performing spectacularly well under his leadership. It received 0.45% of the vote in 1994, giving it two seats in Parliament. This rose to 1.43% in 1999, then grew slightly in 2004 (to 1.6%), but declined to 0.8% in 2009.

Another dominant founder whose face is synonymous with his party is Bantu Holomisa, who started the United Democratic Movement (UDM) with former National Party star Roelf Meyer in 1997.

For almost 17 years, Holomisa has remained the party’s president, a phenomenon he attributes to a functional democracy. “I’ve been fortunate in that UDM structures have had confidence in electing me,” he said.

However, under his leadership, the party’s support has declined in the past three general elections – from 3.4% in 1997, to 2.8% in 2004, to 0.85% in 2009. Some of its prominent members, such as Meyer and of then secretary general Annelize van Wyk, left and joined the ANC, or founded their own doomed parties.

Like Holomisa, the Inkatha Freedom Party’s (IFP) Mangosuthu Buthelezi insists that party members – who know no other leader but him – do not want him to retire.

Buthelezi founded the IFP as “a cultural liberation movement” in 1975, a good 39 years ago. However, IFP’s spin doctor Liezl van der Merwe insists that the party is only 24 years old, a reference to its transformation into a political party in 1990.

The 85-year-old Buthelezi is mentioned 25 times in the IFP’s summarised history on its website.

Inkatha dominated the KwaZulu homeland’s volatile politics under apartheid. It once ruled the redesigned province of KwaZulu-Natal, until being toppled by the ANC at the polls, and then reduced to one of the diminishing minority parties.

Contrary to Buthelezi’s belief that his followers adored him, several, such as former contenders to the throne Ziba Jiyane and Zanele Magwaza-Msibi wanted change and split from the IFP.

Jiyane dipped into bowls of largely irrelevant political alphabet soup as leader of the National Democratic Convention and then the South African Democratic Congress, before joining the Democratic Alliance in 2011. Magwaza-Msibi formed the National Freedom Party (NFP).

But Van der Merwe, who is also a party MP, said it was “patently untrue” to suggest that Buthelezi was the IFP’s ruler-for-life. Like Meshoe, Buthelezi had twice “signalled his intention to retire”.

“But, on both occasions, the national conference of the IFP unanimously asked him to remain at the helm. He therefore continues to serve at the behest of his party’s members. As a democrat, he puts the will of the people ahead of his own desires or interests. The IFP has already begun its leadership transition. The conference called on Prince Buthelezi to remain as president to oversee it.”

But the IFP’s seemingly inexorable slide has continued under democracy. It was the third largest party in the 1994 general elections. But its support has shrunk ever since, from 8.5% in 1999 to 4% in the most recent general election.

But Van der Merwe pointed out that the party had gained traction in the 2011 local government polls, achieving 3.94% of the vote.

Buthelezi’s nemesis, Magwaza-Msibi, is guaranteed a 10-year uncontested rule of the NFP. According to the party’s constitution: “The office of the first president of the NFP will be held for two consecutive terms; thereafter the office of president shall be contested every five years.”

Like Buthelezi, Magwaza-Msibi believes her members “love me so much” even though “I try to inculcate in our members that it’s not about me. We have to make sure that even if I die today, there will be leadership [for] the NFP tomorrow,” she said.

Her party achieved 2.58% in the 2011 municipal polls, trailing behind her rival, the IFP.

Magwaza-Msibi is as central to the NFP as Mamphela Ramphele is to Agang. While the Independent Democrats’s founding president, Patricia de Lille, successfully convinced ID members to collapse the party into the DA, Ramphele tried to become the DA’s presidential candidate without telling members. It backfired.

But Agang’s deputy national spokesperson Andrew Gasnolar doesn’t believe Ramphele’s personality is cultish. She would be happy to serve the organisation however she best can,” he said. “At present, this is as leader.”

However, new and embryonic parties such as Agang and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) might not have sprung up had it not been for the galvanising force of their respective leaders’ charisma and charm.

The Julius Malema brand has built the EFF, which was formed in August 2013. But Malema said the party brand had overtaken his own. “Within this short space of time, the party has outlived the individual in the name of Julius Malema,” said Malema. “It has already cut out a role for itself as a party in our society.”

Du Preez agrees with the EFF leader, saying the party is likely to evolve beyond Malema.

“The EFF needs Julius’s public profile [for now], but it represents much more than Julius,” said Du Preez. If you asked one million South Africans about the IFP or UDM, for instance, you would not get anything beyond the names of their leaders.”

It appeared that the Congress of the People was not going to allow the party to be hamstrung by the cult of a leader-for-life. Instead, co-leaders Mbhazima Shilowa and Mosiuoa Lekota let their vicious personality clash paralyse the party.

Some analysts say this paralysis will prompt the party’s extinction. Next week’s election will reveal the truth of those predictions.

In the meantime, with regard to the rest: Long live the party, er, the party leader! – Additional research by Moshoeshoe Monare