A new era in politics gives rise to new challenges in community activism

by Jonathan Erasmus, CAN Project Manager

If you were in denial that South Africa had entered the election cycle,  then the past two weeks should certainly end this notion.

Now that the election date has been pronounced, every political party or movement or whatever they call themselves, has placed itself in official campaign mode although in reality they started weeks ago.

President Cyril Ramaphosa used the State of the Nation Address (SONA) as his launch pad and the opposition parties in parliament used their ability to ask questions and comment as a mechanism to create soundbites and TikTok videos for their voting base.

Too, we have witnessed potentially massive political movements in our country that could undoubtedly reshape how we engage with the future.

And with such changes comes new realities. Community organisations are going to need to learn – and quickly – how to operate in a fluid political environment.

There is enough evidence that the 2024 General Election could be as important as the formation of the Union in 1910, the rise of the National Party in 1948 and our first free and fair democratic election in 1994.

Each of those moments set the course for South Africa for the following three to four decades and 2024 promises to deliver just that again.

I am still not convinced that the ANC will be out of power come the final results of the 2024 National Election but it is evident that they will no longer hold a clear majority.

For anyone who has followed the history of Jacob Zuma, the former state president who is still facing a raft of corruption charges and has bizarrely already spent time in jail since leaving office, it was always clear that he and he alone was the only politician of populist stature that could start his own political party and truly destabilise the ANC in the run-up to this election. And he has done just that.

The only other South African politician capable of creating massive voter shifts is Julius Malema and his alter ego the Economic Freedom Fighters. But by all available polls, and a decade of existence, the party appears to have reached a ceiling and polls between 8-15% nationally. Too,  his party was dealt a major blow to its campaigning strategy when its leadership, including Malema, was denied access to the State of the Nation Address – its annual pedestal to advocate chaos. Furthermore their Durban manifesto launch was blown and then rained out by inclement weather two days later. Moreover, the party’s teen angst and morally flexible politics make it a difficult vote for aggrieved conservative ANC voters to move towards them. Zuma’s party does not hold this baggage.

The rest of the new political field as well-meaning and politically poetic as they may be such as Rise Mzansi, ActionSA and former FirstRand Chair Roger Jardine’s movement, simply have no political capacity, or influence like Zuma to shake up our political fabric.

According to a recent poll by the Social Research Foundation his MK Party could very likely garner 25% of the vote in KZN and potentially 5% of the national vote.

It is still early days and there is still much campaigning to take place and in the case of the MK Party, the allure of being something shiny and new may fade, but without being over-simplistic, we are clearly entering a new era of leadership.

So, then how can community organisations swivel to meet the unpredictable future ahead?

The most obvious is they need to be as organised, if not better organised, than the pollical parties elected to office.

Through several years of involvement in the community activism space it has become clear a municipality simply cannot argue with hard facts clearly presented by a community group that is firm in its belief yet respectful of the processes offered to them.

Communities win hearings, tribunals and court cases against local government not because the municipality is so bad at putting forward a counter argument, although this does play a part in some instances, but because the community has taken the time to dedicate resources to make their case water tight.

I cannot repeat this enough – community organisations need to be organised or they will disappear and be walked over by a wily government battle hardened by decades of strife.

We as community leaders and community activists need to come to terms with the reality that tomorrow’s politics are here today.

Furthermore, the political shake up post the 2024 election could be hugely beneficial to communities as it will force a reorganisation of where power lies, upsetting decades old and often inefficient systems and allowing for new, and hopefully transparent and fair systems to rise.

There are only two ways of viewing our unpredictable future and that is whether the glass is half full or half empty.

I choose the former. I hope you do to.

To read additional columns by Jonathan Erasmus visit his Substack channel.