Saving South Africa from the ANC was, in the words of Herman Mashaba, the most important mission for every activist in his new party, ActionSA.
The party president’s words back in February last year injected new energy into ActionSA activists. For almost its entire existence, the party has known no normality, operating under lockdowns necessitated by Covid-19. Activists found the courage to walk on the ground, selling the idea of the new party to the voters, even at the risk of contracting the deadly virus.
Mthandeni Bhembe, a former member of ActionSA who was expelled for “speaking too much”, is still moved by Mashaba’s founding message of the party. “We risked everything,” says the Soweto-based community activist, adding that even funds for personal protective equipment came from the pockets of Mashaba’s ground troops.
“We relied on wearing face masks. We didn’t see Covid-19 as a problem. It was about saving South Africa from the ANC. Mashaba told us that South Africa needed us,” he says.
He adds that at least four or five of those working the ground with him lost their lives due to the virus and he is grateful to still be alive: “We survived. We’re here living, today. God was on our side. We were very lucky.”
Bhembe says he and his co-workers understood that the party did not have money to support their ground activities, so they had to fork out money for petrol, campaign T-shirts and food for groups of 10 to 12 volunteers who helped with door-to-door campaigns.
He says:Some people spent R25 000, others spent R15 000 or R10 000. A few borrowed money from loan sharks and now they’re left with debt.
The activists worked from 8am to 5pm to ensure that, by the 9pm curfew under lockdown, everyone had been transported back home. Volunteers would sometimes get R50 from branch campaign managers – a party title allocated to Bhembe and those who led the ActionSA assault against the ANC on the ground.
The small stipend was just a token of appreciation, he says, adding that it was a humane thing to do because “these people were away from their homes for the entire day when they could have been doing something else during that time to earn some income”.
When they came face to face with voters, the ActionSA activists had a solid, structured message that everyone was expected to convey: they sold Mashaba as the saviour of South Africa. The campaign message focused on his achievements in the short time he had spent as the DA’s mayor of Johannesburg, including the insourcing of blue-collar workers.
Potential voters were reminded that Mashaba was the mastermind behind the iconic Black Like Me hair products – a business idea that thrived even before the country achieved democracy.
Bhembe says:They didn’t know him at the time, so we had to explain to the voters who he was. We were promoting Mashaba more than the party.
At one party meeting in Turffontein – a suburb in the south of Johannesburg known for horseracing – Mashaba’s troops began questioning why his was the only face on the 5 000 party posters that they were pasting up on every corner of Johannesburg ahead of the November 1 municipal election. The response was that the party did not have money to pay for additional posters displaying the faces of ward candidates such as Bhembe.
Last month, Bhembe was among a group of about 30 ActionSA activists who signed a grievance memorandum, warning that the party was falling into the trap of promoting self-interest at the expense of its constituents and voters. The grievance was triggered by the alleged exclusion of “ground troops” who popularised the party to the 44 proportional representations it obtained after the election.
They alleged that Mashaba had used them to get his “friends” proportional representative (PR) councillor posts. “We felt betrayed,” Bhembe told City Press, adding that, while the ground troops spent their own money to shore up the party, those occupying PR seats today “never spent a cent”.We later learnt that some of them were receiving stipends of up to R7 000 a month during the campaign season.
Ward candidates like him were expected to get R4 000 a month, which seemingly never happened, “but we were the ones who brought in the votes”.
Rubbing salt into the wound, the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) last month published the list of political party donations received between July and September. ActionSA declared R16.9 million.
HOW THEY ‘LOST OUT’
Forming a new party and campaigning during lockdown was always going to be a challenge and among the innovative solutions introduced by ActionSA were two internet applications: one to register new members and supporters, and another to facilitate internal contestation for posts.
The first application only required the identity number of the new member or supporter for them to be registered, after which they could become actively involved in the party’s activities, while supporters pledged their vote.
The introduction of the second application marked the start of Bhembe’s problems with his former party. He alleged that, when he tried to register as a PR councillor, the application recorded his submission as “pending” – yet others managed to have their submissions accepted.
The required information included an ID, a CV, qualifications and proof that aspirant candidates’ council bills were in good standing.
“It was as if this application was choosing people. When we asked questions, we were told not to worry and that it was probably just a small technical glitch that would soon be fixed,” said Bhembe.
To submit a name for a PR councillor position, candidates needed to have recorded 500 endorsements from people around Johannesburg. At 555 endorsements, Bhembe was among the early leaders in the PR race.
He was so confident of getting at least one PR seat that he even helped those who were still far from attaining the target, he said.
“Our view is that, out of the 44 PR seats, at least 22 should have been allocated to candidates because we did the groundwork. We made Mashaba and the party popular,” he said.
A ‘DIGITAL-FIRST’ PARTY
ActionSA’s Michael Beaumont said that, at party events, particularly those featuring mayoral candidates, the party complied with Covid-19 regulations, even to the extent of providing sanitiser and disposable masks.
“There are also public records of Mashaba handing masks to members of the public during the campaign. In short, we took every reasonable step to ensure that the party and its members complied at all material times.”
Regarding the use of new technology, Beaumont said ActionSA was a “digital-first” organisation. “The bulk of our engagements, starting during The People’s Dialogue, have been digital. In part, this is a result of our future-focused orientation, as well as having been founded in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
He said that, over time, the party built and refined its digital systems to ensure that they were able to manage the increasing interest in the party: “We made it as easy and safe as humanly possible for South Africans to sign up as members and participate in our programmes – from registering as members to participating in our groundbreaking direct democracy initiative, where we opened up our candidate selection process to the public, making it a candidate election process instead.”
Beaumont added that the other app for selecting ward and PR councillor candidates was also effective and served as an example of how political parties and election management bodies such as the IEC could use technology to make voting safer and easier.
He denied allegations that the application process had been manipulated, saying: “It isn’t unusual for those who’re unsuccessful in party political processes, where there’s a chance of material financial gain should things go your way, to be upset about the outcome.”
He also denied that ActionSA had printed 5 000 posters showing only Mashaba’s face. Hundreds of thousands of posters of the mayoral candidates had been printed in every municipality contested, he said, and “in all of them, except Johannesburg, the mayoral candidates were pictured alongside the leader of the party – Herman Mashaba”.
At ward level, he said, ActionSA had paid for the printing of 5 000 distributable leaflets, and each one featured the ward candidate, the mayoral candidate and the party leader.