/ 21 March 2023

Shutdown aftermath: Case for a new United Democratic Front

Eff Protest3
Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), center right, during a national shutdown protest, organised by the EFF, outside of the presidential guest house in Pretoria, South Africa, on Monday. (Guillem Sartorio/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Great National Shutdown has been and gone.

Now what?

I am not holding my breath for President Cyril Ramaphosa to step down; a day of no work (to the extent that it happened) may well give a temporary respite for Eskom but does not solve its deep, systemic problems.

I am opposed to criminalising protest but a debate long overdue is how we go about setting boundaries on what is acceptable. Demanding that protest should not be disruptive, for example, is unhelpful. Protest is by its nature disruptive. You cannot even limit it specifically to that which is lawful. There are many precedents such as Greenpeace protests where the otherwise unlawful is justified by “lawful excuse”.

But there is another bigger question to answer that protest cannot answer. Our society is unwell and needs remedial treatment while it still can be recovered. How do we go about that? Complaining about symptoms is not a cure. The one clear problem, state capture, is not going to be fixed by re-electing the same mix of parties. Unless this one is solved, service delivery and undoing inequality will still fail.

Elections take place next year and we still do not have real solutions. This is reflected by the fact that the growing decline of the ANC vote has not translated to growing strength of the opposition vote, which remains fragmented. A symptom of this problem is shrinking election participation.

Official turnout in national elections was 89% in 1994 and has declined in each election since to 66% in 2019. But this does not tell the whole story — voter registration has also declined to the point where less than half the eligible population actually voted in 2019.

If someone could register a party called Didn’t Vote that was awarded all the votes of those of voting age who didn’t vote, it would win. This is an indictment of not only the ANC but also of opposition parties.

What broke? Can it be fixed?

My experience of grassroots campaigning is that many potential voters have given up. They do not trust politicians of any stripe. They expect them to say and do what it takes to get elected then forget their constituency for the next five years. Whether this is fair or not, it is widely accepted and the basis for it is failed service delivery and broken promises such as “a better life for all”.

In September last year, Ramaphosa told a gathering of mayors that “we are finding that the real capture is happening at local government level, where certain interests just capture the entire municipality” and the consequence people see is that nothing works. Roads are potholed, clean water is not reliably supplied, electricity supply is unreliable even without load-shedding and rivers of sewage run through the streets and even homes.

After nearly 30 years, despite a Constitution that, properly read, says black lives matter and poor lives matter, we remain a deeply unequal society. This will remain so until we have a functioning government, not the growing trend of a Model C country — those who can afford to pay extra get services; the poor get nothing.

To find a solution we must recognise that politics as usual has broken. Our electoral system favours those who control parties as proportional representation (PR) lists are an internal party function; other than ward councillors, no one is elected in their own right. For this reason, parties are dominated by power brokers or are in effect cults of the leader. Because most candidates do not need a public presence to get elected, inevitably the personality of the leader becomes a dominant factor, which makes coalitions brittle and prevents small parties of like objects from combining.

We had a model before that was robust and stood up to a police state that would have done anything to dismantle it — the United Democratic Front. The UDF was a coalition of hundreds of small organisations from civic movements and unions to business groups and academics. It was organised from the ground up so it was hard to disrupt leadership. It started in 1983, when apartheid oppression was at its peak, partially in response to PW Botha’s tricameral parliament.

The UDF disbanded in 1991 after political prisoners were freed and bans on organisations were lifted. In retrospect, this was premature. A robust civil society organisation outside representative politics would have been a useful check on government power, particularly given the nature of our voting system.

I raise the UDF example as a way to organise politically as an alternative way to contest the 2024 elections, rather than to propose reconstituting it in its original form. Since 1991, we have developed a robust civil society; the fragility is in political representation.

Two things made the UDF successful: the way it was organised was not reliant on central leadership and it had a clear single-minded goal: end apartheid.

How can we draw on these ideas today?

The opposition space is fragmented, with leaders who are not able to work together. Local organisations have little sway with political parties, as the political process is designed to promote the leader. Recreating a UDF-like structure based on civic movements and the like would build a ground-up movement in which the personality of the leader would be less likely to dominate. It could also focus on a short and clear set of common objectives such as decriminalising government and taking on systemic racism.

The constitutional court has ruled that independent candidates should be allowed. But the proposed process for that would not allow a group of independents to pool their votes, so if any did not earn enough votes to be elected, their votes would be forfeited. The Electoral Amendment Bill enabling this (still awaiting presidential assent) requires nominations to be supported by 20% of the number of voters needed to win a seat in the previous parliament, a very high bar. So it is possible that a small organised group could nominate a slate of independents with some chance of winning. But any votes for anyone who does not make the cut for a seat will be wasted.

Nominating independents therefore is not a great option for such a civic movement. Rather, it needs to have at least some of the structure of a political party to stand a reasonable chance of winning seats.

I have learnt a few things from being involved in new political movements (Agang SA in 2014 and Makana Citizens Front in 2021). It is important to have a robust constitution that clearly defines leadership structures, decision-making powers and mechanisms and disciplinary processes. For a grass-roots organisation, the constitutional role of its constituting structures also needs to be very clear. Do they have a vote as a structure, or does the new organisation need its own branch structure? It is also important to have a robust secretariat and to ensure that all interactions with the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) follow their processes and are properly recorded and acted on.

A few lessons from the past inform these views. The IEC by and large acts as a filing cabinet and does not examine the content of documents passed to it, and expects parties to handle any disputes internally. If any such dispute arises, it needs to be resolved quickly — ideally internally but otherwise there is little option but going to court. Without clear decision-making structures and processes that are well documented, opportunists can easily hijack an organisation. The biggest risk is right after the election, when seats are a prize resource and the organisation’s coffers are depleted.

Another important consideration is deciding how to constitute a PR list. At the municipal level, it is possible to top up the PR list after the election. This makes it an option to nominate a list of length one and decide after the election who really should be in council. A grassroots organisation could exploit this to decide based on performance during the election who should actually be elected. At national and provincial level, this can’t be done; any seats won in excess of the nominees are forfeited, and reallocated to other parties. This is unfortunate because the process of nominating a PR list cannot easily be corrected. In the case of Agang SA, for example, when Mamphela Ramphele decided not to take up her seat and there was supposed to be a debate about who should go in her stead, the next two on the list took up their seats and rebelled against the leadership. After that, the two MPs fought each other until one was removed and the party effectively ceased to function as the remaining MP had no accountability to anyone.

Once someone is elected, they can only be removed by a disciplinary process that will stand up to a court challenge.

The best overall option taking all these things into account is a robust organisation to handle the technical and clerical details such as IEC processes and ensuring that the civic organisations’ preferences for candidates are correctly represented in the PR list. This organisation would need a constitution defining rigorous processes for decision-making and discipline and a strong leadership team. Any shortcomings will almost certainly be exploited by opportunists once the resources of elected office come into play.

Despite the risks of trying something new, we need new options because all else has failed.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.