I’m glad that the coffee shop has space inside, since it’s bitingly cold on the patio. There is an enrapturing aroma of coffee and confectionery in the air. At the adjacent tables, people are getting on with their lives. An elderly gent leafs attentively through his broadsheet. A scattering of youngish up-and-comers work their phones and tablets. A pair of insanely beautiful young ladies conduct an animated conversation in Afrikaans.
Across from me sits Makashule Gana. I’ve had a nodding acquaintanceship with Gana – which seems to be how just about everyone refers to him (‘Makashule is too difficult for some people to pronounce, and it’s difficult to butcher Gana,’ he chuckles) – for well over a decade, mostly through his time in the Democratic Alliance. Not a deep relationship, but he always struck me as personable and conscientious.
In the DA, he would at times be mentioned as the party’s future, or rather as the future the party needed to aspire to. Not to put too fine a point on it, he represented the township-and-village experience that the DA can struggle to connect to. Eusebius McKaiser devoted a chapter of his book Could I Vote DA? to him on these grounds.
I regarded his resignation from the party as a blow to the DA – more so than some of its other departees – although I was also taken by how some in the commentariat ignored what he actually had to say, shoehorning his departure from the DA into a racial narrative. My take was that he had expressed quite positive sentiments in his resignation letter. I wrote: ‘Makashule Gana’s resignation letter … made no mention of race or racism, but did talk at length about the failings of existing parties, their inability to connect with ordinary people and his admiration for Songezo Zibi. He added that he had “no regrets” about his career.’
That was what brought me here. Gana is now the Chief Organiser of RISE Mzansi, the outfit launched with Zibi at the helm in April this year.
I’ve noted before that while new parties attempting to break into our politics have been a feature since the 1990s, the polycrisis confronting South Africa offers a possible opening that did not exist before. Could RISE Mzansi respond to that?
I can’t resist opening with the question of Gana’s departure from the DA. He reiterates what he’s said publicly. ‘I felt that the DA lost its appetite to be a big party representing the broader part of society. After 2019, the DA abandoned its expansive approach and focussed on consolidation. It wasn’t about winning anymore.’
‘I’m about winning,’ he adds. It’s a theme that comes up repeatedly in the conversation. As it happens, Gana is an accomplished distance runner; there is a drive there, and a sense of the long-term.
So why RISE Mzansi? ‘Let me say this,’ he begins reflectively, ‘when I did my Honours, thinking about the need for an alternative for South Africa, I came to realise that we need a different voice to introduce it. We need a different way of thinking. The current mode of politics, the ‘big man’ idea, it doesn’t appeal to me.’
He goes on to outline RISE Mzansi’s view of this reformed politics. ‘The starting point is that politics is about people, and about inclusion. People have been treated like beggars, rather than as the bosses of the system. Whatever we do must focus on people and what it means for them.’
From this, he says, RISE Mzansi has desisted from announcing detailed solutions. These will be worked out ‘with the people’. However, a non-racial society is non-negotiable. On this, he’s emphatic: ‘We won’t play the politics of polarisation.’ Nor, he says, does the country need a benevolent dictator.
The overall ideas he sets out are generally pragmatic. He describes RISE Mzansi as broadly social democratic in outlook, though with a recognition of the essential role of the private sector. On crime, for example, he says that individuals’ security cannot be delinked from that of our economic prospects: ‘when people feel unsafe, investment is unsafe.’
He emphasises that not just politics, but also the state administration and the economy need a make-over. ‘We need to get the most capable, most ethical to raise their hands.’ There’s a recognition that public institutions are failing, and that entrants to the job market don’t have the skills to compete – which, though not entirely original insights, would represent a welcome change from the patronage and faux redistribution focus of the present.
On the ever-contentious question of race, I sense some equivocation. He argues reasonably enough that there’s a need to recognise the damage that the country’s history inflicted – its recent history has not always been covered in glory either – and he expresses some sympathy for the nominal intentions behind policies such as Black Economic Empowerment, though not its outcomes. But there seems to be little appetite to maintain the current course. ‘We can’t say that we want to build a non-racial society without addressing the past; we need to do this as a journey,’ he says. What form that journey will take seems to be unchartered for now.
I’m conflicted about this part of the discussion. The idea of a new and more productive form of politics is an eminently attractive one. Apartheid forced the country apart and the post-apartheid period has been marred by a depressing catalogue of failings, as well as a reversion to exclusionary racial politics. Liberation movements make poor stewards of democracy and of the economies that support them.
Lack of clarity
I’m not opposed to anything Gana sketches, but for a party with impressive intellectual firepower, I would have hoped for more detailed and innovative policy thinking. Its policy offering will, I understand, be revealed in due time, though the lack of clarity at present is frustrating for me.
On one particular issue, RISE Mzansi is animated: the reform of the electoral system. As with other new formations – and some older ones – RISE Mzansi stresses the need to introduce a voting system that directs representatives’ accountability from party bosses to those they represent. Gana waves away the recent amendment as meaningless. The need, he says, is for a system that introduces real constituencies, replicating at higher levels the sort of system that exists in municipalities.
Systems aside, RISE Mzansi is rapidly approaching its electoral debut. I put to him the critique that RISE Mzansi might come across as a collection of highly accomplished good guys who are not suited to the rough-and-tumble of real politics.
Gana laughs and gets back to the sporting analogy: ‘It’s like looking at the start of a training scheme for a marathon. Don’t make an assessment at the beginning. Look at the results of the race.’ There has been, he adds, a great deal of goodwill and support, not least in South Africa’s rural parts. But it’s not a quick or easy process.
He continues: ‘I’m convinced, as chief organiser, I’m confident in our ability to give the existing parties a battle. To get a seat in Parliament, we’ll have to take it from someone else; they won’t just hand us power. They must bring on their best. That’s a battle, and we’re not battle shy.’
Claim the substance
‘2024 is our 1994’ has been RISE Mzansi’s slogan (or hashtag, for a new generation…). Gana says that this is meant to do more than invoke an iconic moment, but to claim the substance of what it was meant to represent. ‘Our challenges are not a function of our democracy. Constitutional democracy is a solution to our challenges.’ The most promising target audience for RISE Mzansi’s message are those in the 30-plus age range. They’ve seen the downturns and frustrations of the past three decades, and the things that have not materialised. These are people who should have seen the dividends of the new society and are concerned about the future of their children.
As we call for the bill, Gana’s focus becomes personal. ‘I want to give this to our kids, so that they can finish the race. A better South Africa for our kids. Anything less, we fail.’
I agree there. Whether this is something that RISE Mzansi will contribute to remains to be seen. There’s a marathon ahead.