The outcome of the 8 May general election is a foregone conclusion. That’s according to some in the Eastern Cape, such as 74-year-old Nofikile Tyhokolwana, who believe that the upcoming vote has long been written in the stars.
An empty, faded powder blue cabinet stands at the far end of Tyhokolwana’s hut in Corhana on the outskirts of Mthatha. Her late husband was a carpenter and made the cabinet when he worked at a now-closed furniture factory in town.
The disappearance of factory jobs like her husband’s that apartheid’s homeland system propped up, and the failure to reverse Mthatha’s economic freefall since, are part of the reason why Tyhokolwana is looking for a new political home. After a number of changes in allegiance – first switching to the United Democratic Movement (UDM), then the DA – since turning her back on the ANC 20 years ago, Tyhokolwana says she has found that home in the African Transformation Movement (ATM).
The chosen party
In 1970, so the story goes, an apostle of the Twelve Apostles Church in Christ (TACC) foresaw the end of apartheid and the election of an ANC government in about 24 years’ time. He went on to prophesize that it would take two decades before the liberation party’s rule floundered and that a new party would rise in its stead.
Some, like Tyhokolwana, say that a surprising result in a recent rural by-election shows that the chosen party has arrived. The ATM came away with an unprecedented 30% of the Nyandeni Ward 21 vote, cast predominantly by villagers living around Ngqeleni, east of Mthatha. That’s almost half of the ruling ANC’s 65% showing, and a trouncing of the UDM – the other traditional Eastern Cape political heavyweight – which managed a meagre 2%.
The upstart party has its roots in the South African Council of Messianic Churches in Christ, a body that includes the TACC, which claims a membership of nearly seven million, as well as South Africa’s biggest church, the Zionist Christian Church (ZCC). The current chief apostle of the TACC, Caesar Nongqunga, has said part of the reason for the party’s establishment is to become “a mouthpiece for the churches and the protector of this nation”.
The ANC is often described as a broad church, an ideological home to communists and capitalists alike. But according to Nongqunga, Nyandeni is a sign that the mecca of South Africa’s political worship has turned its back on a key constituency: churchgoers.
Tyhokolwana belongs to Nongqunga’s strong Eastern Cape congregation, a seemingly ready-made constituency that agrees with this sentiment. And it is closely tied to her church activities. She said that members of her TACC congregation are being encouraged to vote for the ATM and that the bishops from her church are more active in her community than any politician.
Canary in the coal mine?
Someone else who has turned to the ATM after seeing the hands-on approach taken by church leaders is Celiwe Nongqoqo, 46, who ran as the party’s candidate in the Nyandeni by-election. A long-time ANC member (she once occupied leadership positions in the party’s regional structures in the Western Cape), Nongqoqo became disillusioned with the ruling party when it failed to help after her brother’s death. In stepped Nongqunga, who she said paid for the funeral.
The ATM’s activities in some urban areas buttress suggestions that Nongqoqo’s shock performance in the Nyandeni by-election may be one of the canaries in the 8 May coal mine. The party has been organising, with some success, in shack settlements in Soshanguve north of Tshwane, for instance, and recently took 5% of the vote in a by-election in Soweto, another traditional ANC stronghold.
While the post-1994 arc of the ANC in the former Transkei is long, the last few elections suggest it bends towards uncertainty. Data on electoral trends in the former homeland is difficult to come by. But support for the party among the Eastern Cape’s black voters – a close approximation of the vote in the former Transkei, according to independent election analyst Dawie Scholtz – has been on a steady, if slow, decline recently. In 2011, 86% of black votes went to the ruling party. In 2014, that decreased slightly to 85%. In the 2016 local government elections, black support had dropped to 80%.
The ATM’s hopes of translating the Nyandeni by-election into broader provincial success rest on another experienced political campaigner. The party’s provincial chairperson and candidate, Veliswa Mvenya, who was the prime mover behind the party’s Nyandeni campaign, spent almost two decades in the DA before she left after clashing with former Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip last year.
Mvenya, a self-proclaimed God-believer, went on the lookout for a political alternative “that will say something about God, or would bring godly values”. The African Christian Democratic Party, which she said is too centred on the personal vision of Kenneth Meshoe, has never resonated with her.
In an interview at Nongqunga’s sprawling compound outside Mthatha, Mvenya told New Frame that even she has been surprised by the positive response the ATM has received from voters, who she said are “thirsty”.
Mvenya grew up in Ntseshe, a small village near Idutywa, south of Mthatha. Some of Mvenya’s formative political experiences came early in life. When Mvenya and her siblings visited their single mother, a domestic worker in Johannesburg, during school holidays, they would gather around the bed at night. There, on the mattress, her mother laid out her wages – never much more than R600 in any given month – and counted the money with her children.
For Mvenya, exposure to her mother’s financial struggles was a lesson in inclusion. She says if communities are similarly included in government budgeting processes, there will be less frustration and fewer protests. They will know what money has come, and where it has gone.
The ATM shot into the headlines earlier this year when Mzwanele Manyi, the Zuma-linked former government spokesperson and ANN7 owner, joined the party after a failed attempt to establish his own. Contrary to widespread reports that he is leading the ATM, Manyi has taken up a position as the party’s head of policy.
It is difficult to discern the clear policy agenda with which the ATM hopes to quench the “thirst” of voters among the worn political platitudes it is pushing. These include “active citizenry” and “practical democracy”. The party is, however, advocating some mainstays of social conservative policy. One is the introduction of “justice-based” capital punishment, which Mvenya called “one of our selling points”.
She suggested that the reintroduction of a death penalty, which would act more as a deterrent to violent crime than anything else, would among other things help stop farm murders and the murder of elderly people. “These people kill very important people in our country,” she said. “Farmers are very key in the economy of this country.”
According to Mvenya, violent crime in South Africa is down to a broken legal system. “They do it [murder] because they know the law covers them, or the law favours them… We need to ensure that our justice system does not favour the perpetrators, it favours the victims.”
The finer details of the policy have not been ironed out. Exactly how an ATM government would mete out death sentences, for instance, remains unclear. Except that it would not be by hanging. “Hanging is too…” Mvenya’s sentence trailed off as she screwed up her face.
Part of the policy that has been decided, however, would see perpetrators who impede on breadwinners’ ability to earn – through attempted murder or rape, for instance – forced to work for the victim’s family.
Under the ATM, prisoners would be made to “plough back” into society, said Mvenya. Ordinary people are not benefiting from the current system of incarceration, she said, but prisoners are. “You know what happens? They are taken back to school, they read books, they’ve got cellphones, they’ve got better food in jail. Who doesn’t want better food if at home there is not better food? So, they go to jail.”
Mvenya claimed that part of the reason behind South Africa’s sluggish economy is a low circulation of cash in township and rural economies. This, she said, is down to the tax avoidance and capital flight perpetrated by migrant-owned businesses.
“In rural areas and townships, we used to have spaza shops owned by our fathers or by our brothers or the community. They were feeding their family members. They were taking them to school,” she said. “But now, [in] each and every community, [on] each and every street, even the rural areas, spaza shops are owned by foreigners.”
While ATM would look to boost trade with other African countries, “priority must be given to South Africans” in the township and rural economies at home, Mvenya said. The party proposes achieving this priority by taxing migrant-owned businesses, at which point Mvenya said “they will leave because they would have to charge the normal price”.
When asked if ATM’s economic policies amount to xenophobia, the provincial candidate responded by saying that “it’s xenophobic violence when it is not done the right way. If it’s coming from government and it’s regulated, then there won’t be any violence. It’s violent because South Africans panic and become angry, and then they do it themselves.”
Danwood Chirwa, the dean at the University of Cape Town’s faculty of law and a specialist in international human rights and constitutional law, told New Frame that neither capital punishment nor the exclusion of migrants from sectors of the economy could “pass constitutional muster”.
After it was used to brutalise political resistance against apartheid, the death penalty was abolished in South Africa in 1995. International law prohibits the reintroduction of death penalties once they have been outlawed. Chirwa said it would be virtually impossible to change the constitutional provision that protects the right to life.
Where limiting migrant’s access to the economy is concerned, Chirwa said that it is conceivable that migrants might be targeted through immigration law, but that government “cannot limit [their] economic freedom and freedom of movement”.
Overtures to the activists
At a 14 April rally in Sigidi – a village northeast of Ngcobo that has been one of the centres of resistance against proposed mining by an Australian firm in the area – the ATM leaned on its church links in an overture to anti-mining activists. The former chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe, whose assassination more than three years ago is yet to be solved, was a member of the TACC congregation.
“If you were free, do you think Bazooka would have died for the land of his ancestors?” cried Nongqunga, whose impressive performance at the rally resembled one of his sermons as much as it did a stump speech. Even his criticism of mining trailed off into the ethereal: “We are not here for mining! We are here to look after your souls!”
Nevertheless, the anti-mining message found fertile ground. Nongqunga’s comparison of the proposed strip mining of the nearby titanium-rich dunes to rape by a lecherous old man was met with rapturous applause. (So were the football kits and equipment he donated to five local teams.)
In a bold statement leading up to the rally, the party said “the people of Xolobeni, led by the Amadiba Crisis Committee” would be declaring the ATM their “political home”. Committee chair Sibusiso Mqadi called the statement “a mistake” when speaking to New Frame.
While Mqadi has personal sympathies with the ATM, he stressed that the crisis committee maintains no connection to any political party. “Our principle is to protect the land, not the politics,” he said.