The African Transformation Movement (ATM), rocked by an internal breakaway before it can contest its first national elections, believes it can still make its presence felt on May 8 — despite one of its founders attempting to have it deregistered as a party.
Although much of the early attention drawn by the fledgling party has focused on its association with businessman-cum-civil servant Mzwanele Jimmy Manyi and former president Jacob Zuma, the ATM is the creation of the South African Council of Messianic Churches in Christ (SACMCC), a body of predominantly African churches that have historically fallen outside of the South African Council of Churches.
The party, which boasts of a “ready-made support base” in the country’s messianic churches, is a proponent of populist policies such as bringing back the death penalty.
And although its formative stages were linked to unhappiness over the removal of Zuma as president, one analyst has cautioned that the ATM’s leaders have “unfettered ambitions” of their own.
A record number of new political parties have signed up for a spot on the national ballot and there is potential for a variety of post-poll coalitions. Polling how these parties will perform has been impossible, because there is no data yet against which to measure them.
Vuyolwethu Zungula, the ATM’s presidential candidate, believes the new kid on the political block’s performance in an Eastern Cape by-election last month is no fluke — or miracle, for that matter.
He’s been hard on the campaign trail in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga and believes the ATM will take a similar slice of the national and provincial vote.
But the ATM is already facing internal trouble. Last week a group led by Buyisile Ngqulwana, secretary general of the South African Council of Messianic Churches (not to be confused with the SACMCC) and one of the ATM’s candidates for the National Assembly, wrote to the Electoral Commission of South Africa asking that the party be deregistered because its registration was fraudulent.
Ngqulwana claimed the ATM had no mandate to register a party, because its members did not want it to contest the elections but rather to support the ANC.
The party’s leadership said Ngqulwana had resigned from the Twelve Apostles Church in Christ, whose mandate he had carried, and was “confused”.
In March the ATM took 30% of the vote in the Nyandeni Ward 21 by-election, losing the ward to the ANC but beating the significantly more established United Democratic Movement (UDM) and Economic Freedom Fighters by a huge margin.
The area, Ngqeleni, is home to one of the ATM’s founders, Caesar Nongqunga, and one of its key constituent churches, the Twelve Apostles Church in Christ, but the result is still a remarkable one for a party that was only formed last year.
Zungula said the party had been the result of a broad, mass-based consultation process among its constituent organisations. The African independent churches, Zungula said, had, after lengthy consultation, decided to field the ATM as a political party to represent their interests in Parliament and the provincial legislatures.
Unlike other new political entrants, it had the ready made support of 500 churches and more than 20 small parties, which had previously contested local government elections but were not contesting the national and provincial polls.
Zungula said the fact that the ATM was not a breakaway party from an existing political formation made it attractive to people who believed in its key ideas.
He said the party saw no problem working with former Gupta associate Manyi despite his controversial history. “We want to transform society. We can’t just be working with the most clean people. We can’t reject a person from wanting to take part in developing South Africa.”
Manyi’s “character has changed, his language has changed, because the work of the ATM is to transform minds”, Zungula said. “It can best be seen in Manyi.”
Zungula spent several months in talks with member churches to try to convince those who felt they should stay out of politics otherwise. “There was a huge misunderstanding that religion and politics can’t go together. A key part of my job was breaking that barrier,” he said.
He downplayed the ATM’s relationship with Zuma, blaming the media for attempting to scupper the party before it got off the ground.
ATM policies include reinstating the death penalty and banning foreign businesses from trading in the townships and rural areas, populist stances Zungula said reflected sentiment on the ground.
“When the death penalty was abolished in 1995 it was against public opinion. It was not the will of the people,” he said. Mob justice in the streets was, he said, an indication that people wanted harsher sentences for certain crimes, including capital punishment.
The xenophobic attacks were “the people of South Africa somewhat reacting or trying to defend their space against foreign nationals. The attacks are linked to business interests … government says you must stop all of this, but is not addressing why people are committing this.
“We need a micro-economy exclusively for South Africans; foreign nationals should be in the formal sector only, [and should be] registered,” he said.
University of KwaZulu-Natal political analyst Lukhona Mnguni said the ATM was different to other new entrants to the electoral game.
“The individuals prominent in this party — and some of the other parties — do not come from traditional politics, like those who have in the past broken away from the IFP [Inkatha Freedom Party] or ANC,” he said.
Mnguni said the ATM would use the proximity they had to Zuma, “targeting some in the ANC’s core to eat into the ANC’s share [of the vote]”.
“The peculiar politics of the churches, which form its support base, appear to be spilling over into the political sphere. I don’t think we should undermine the ambitions of the likes of Nongqunga and Zungula. We should not be defocused by the preoccupation of the relationship with Zuma and ignore their unfettered ambitions,” he said.
The ATM should, Mnguni said, be seen in the context of the rise of issue-based formations in society more broadly, with organisations campaigning on specific issues rather than on a broader agenda or with a holistic national view.
It had potential to dislodge the UDM in the Eastern Cape, where the member churches had a huge following, he said.
“The ATM is a wild card in this election. It has a very large church base to tap into, particularly in the Eastern Cape. It may end up replacing the UDM in the province, where pollsters are not picking it up.”