After much speculation, the former secretary-general of the ANC, Mr Ace Magashule has launched a new party adding to the growing list of parties on the centre-left of the political spectrum.
The party named the African Convention for Transformation (ACT) has many similarities to breakaway parties that have been born out of difficulties within the ANC in the past decade or two.
Like the EFF that was born after the ANC Youth League president Julius Malema was expelled, ACT would most likely not have ever been born if Magashule was not expelled by the ANC.
In both circumstances, the expulsion followed internal tensions and fissures that the ANC resolved via a disciplinary process that led to expulsion and the expelled decided to challenge the ANC for votes a few months before elections.
It is crucial that ACT is formed clearly with the 2024 elections in mind, it is to rest its strength probably in all provinces like the EFF. It seems that Magashule and his team mobilised across the country in all provinces probably targeting ANC structures to build a presence in all provinces.
While clearly, Magashule has a base in the Free State province where he has been a dominant political figure for nearly 30 years, the ACT launched in Gauteng in order to project its national profile and escape the regional trap that limited the growth of the United Democratic Movement (UDM) when it was born in 1997 after Bantu Holomisa was expelled from the ANC.
The UDM probably reasoned that building from the profile of its leader, a former head of the Transkei homeland, would provide the basis they needed to expand. But like the African Independent Congress, another ANC breakaway born in 2005, the UDM has not been able to grow much nationally.
The birth of the IFP in 1975 is the subject of some debate with the IFP leader saying he was mandated by the ANC to set up Inkatha. It claims to be built in ANC’s original principles, but did not identify with the later evolution of the ANC into a decidedly left party.
ACT seems to be building on former ANC figures and it is promising an en masse move by some branches of the ANC to ACT. This is in areas where the ANC has already experienced defections, party membership challenging the party hierarchy in courts and factionalism generally.
ACT founders know that this is a low hanging fruit for them. There are signals that this new party will get councillors defecting to it and may start to get into local government via by-elections as councillors resign their seats to join it. It will then test its strength before the general elections next year.
Like all parties coming out of the ANC, the ACT takes the colours of the ANC with it. It takes first the literal ANC colours in the prominence of the green, and black colours in the ACT colours. This has benefits in making ANC defectors feel at home in the new part due to their long attachment to ANC colours.
But these colours also have figurative and ideological meaning. So like the Pan-African Congress (the first break way), the AIC and Cope born in 2008, the ACT is also taking with it the meaning of green, black and yellow, the commitment to African nationalism, a Pan-Africanist Outlook, socialist orientation mix.
It is not a new ideological calabash but one that mirrors the ANC, PAC, UDM, and the EFF in many ways than one. The AIC and the IFP evolved slightly differently in ideology towards the centre-right with both committing to liberalism and conservative social values.
The African Radical Economic Transformation Alliance (Areta) formed by Mr Carl Niehaus expelled by the ANC is still an NGO expected to evolve into a political party. It is formed to take forward radical economic agenda it says the ANC has abandoned.
It is significant that Magashule has interacted with some of these parties, ANC-likes in the past few weeks as he prepared for the birth of ACT. This and the fact that he openly declared not being hostile to them but only “the current” ANC, raises prospects that it will align itself with this emerging alliance of leftist parties that has been mooted in the past few weeks.
It will most likely build affinity with these parties as South Africa heads deeper into a politics of coalitions or alliances or blocs of parties working together to common ends.
Like all breakaways from the ANC, there is a nostalgia for a better ANC of the past that the new parties claim is in decline. This appeal to that past may appeal to former or current ANC veterans but may do little to cultivate the really significant disaffected youth vote especially in townships, informal settlements and rural areas.
It may also not be the magic with which to woe middle classes voters.
It makes sense that the party sees itself as a home to “the politically weary”, neglected and disaffected within the ANC. Like all our legist parties, it is a populist party in the sense that it wants to appeal to the “people”, which is the downtrodden people on the margins, a portion of people in great need of mobilisation in our society anyway.
It hopes to be popular by appealing to the sentiments of these margins about the failures of our dispensation including unemployment, poverty, corruption, poor governance, and inequality.
Coalition politics under the current electoral system, both of small parties is significant as it adds to configurations on the left or the right. But, of course, big parties are worried that their dominance becomes ever more difficult with each significant small party being born.
Professor Siphamandla Zondi is the Director of the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation.