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Veteran SA activist Zackie Achmat blazes a trail

BY Victoria O'Regan

The veteran activist is promising to bring the people into Parliament. He says he may be one person, but he’s standing on behalf of a movement, ‘and not one movement, but several movements’.

Of all the independent candidates contesting South Africa’s 2024 national elections, veteran activist Zackie Achmat is arguably the most well-known.

He is a prolific organiser and social justice activist internationally respected for his work with the Treatment Action Campaign, a prominent HIV/Aids advocacy movement. In his home city of Cape Town, he is asked to pose for selfies wherever he goes. Many political parties would love to have this kind of star power to draw on in the campaign season — but Achmat is doing it alone.

“My campaign is the most important exciting thing I’ve ever done; the most important thing I’ve ever done,” he told Daily Maverick.

“I believe that the most important job I can do now is to assist people, both in the National Assembly, but most importantly in communities, to really try and make an impact on national politics,” he said.

Achmat’s political project is a first for South Africa. Never before have independent candidates been allowed to run for Parliament. The 62-year-old political novice is the only independent in the Western Cape vying for a seat in the National Assembly. This means he will only appear on the regional ballot in the Western Cape. Achmat is one of 10 independents who appear on the Electoral Commission of SA’s (IEC’s) provisional candidate lists

If elected to Parliament, Achmat says he will aim to serve, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) — “the most important committee in our Parliament”, which functions as Parliament’s public purse watchdog.

He intends to focus on four key issues: 

  1. Fixing commuter rail by addressing the issues at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa);

  2. Building a South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) that “either adequately coordinates or becomes an agency that genuinely reaches people”;

  3. Ensuring working-class communities get access to affordable renewable sources of energy; and

  4. Focusing on spatial justice and healthcare and mental health.

“With the exception of mental health and harm reduction I have engaged across all those things over time in different capacities,” he said, referring specifically to his directorship role at the civil society group #UniteBehind.

He became the first candidate to publicly announce his intention to run as an independent and has been gathering signatures in the Western Cape to gain ballot access in the province. When the time came for candidates and parties to submit their nomination requirements to the IEC, Achmat had garnered more than 15,000 signatures.

“We managed to collect over 15,000 [signatures] in working-class communities, mainly in the Klipfontein district, which includes Gugulethu and Nyanga, and in the Tygerberg district, which includes Delft, Eerste River and Elsie’s River,” 

“Up until now, 80% of the work I’ve done in the campaign, personally, and that other leaders in the campaign have done, has been building a knowledge-based campaign. The most important part of getting elected starts now.”

Achmat is running a tightly focused campaign. The methods of campaigning that work for larger political parties aren’t going to work for an independent candidate, because they don’t have the resources, people or funds to match that kind of scale. Achmat, with his decades of activism, has the benefit of being a household name to many. But running as an independent is still almost certainly more difficult than forming a political party.

So far, he has raised about R5.2-million, with a total campaign fundraising goal of R12-million. The Political Party Funding Act 6 of 2018, which regulates and aims to make the funding of political parties more transparent, as it stands, does not make provision for independent candidates to declare their funders. However, the details of Achmat’s funding and donors are available on his website.

He has about 1,500 volunteers working across at least 110 voting districts in Cape Town, with 50 organisers working at community level. “These are the paid organisers, largely, at ward level. So we’re organised in close to 40 wards now and that means about 110 voting districts, and we need to reach 200 voting districts,” Achmat told Daily Maverick.

His campaigning is largely restricted to working-class communities in and around Cape Town, as Achmat doesn’t have the resources to campaign in the rest of the province.

“Unfortunately, for this election, I’m competing against parties across the board and they can accumulate [votes] across the province,” he said.

One individual on behalf of a movement

When Achmat appeared before a room full of blue-collar workers on his campaign trail in Gugulethu earlier this month, he made one promise.

“Whatever we do, we do together,”

he told the crowd. 

The veteran activist is promising to bring the people into Parliament. He says he may be one person, but he’s standing on behalf of a movement. “I’m not standing as an individual. I’m standing on behalf of a movement, and not one movement, but several movements, so that when I go into Parliament I’m not alone. I can literally within the first hour bring people’s informed voices into Parliament to give evidence on what is needed — whether it’s on queer issues, people living with disabilities,” he said.

“As a member of Parliament, the first thing I’m going to do is open up the knowledge that people want — get the information, contracts, programmes, get the policies that haven’t seen the light of day

… So, my first position is to look outward. The only information an MP can’t get or make public relates to national intelligence and national security — and that’s correct to a point. 

“The second is to expose those who harm — whether through incompetence, maladministration, being unqualified, or corruption and State Capture. That is a job that I want to do.”

Lack of trust

While no polling or research has been conducted on public support for independent candidates in South Africa, Achmat believes the vast majority of people in the country have “lost faith in representative politics”.

“The overwhelming majority of people in our country do not trust political parties,”

said Achmat, referring to recent polls on the ruling ANC’s decline in support. He said this became clear in the 2021 local government elections when no political party received more than 50% of the vote.

During the final voter registration weekend in February, Achmat had the second-largest presence at 90 voting stations in Cape Town — with the ANC having the largest in many areas and the DA in others.

Achmat believes a large part of his support is within the age bracket of 35 to 60, and of that, 80% are women. He’s of the view that many in his support base are “people who used to vote for the ANC and people who are thinking of not voting ANC this time and people who do not want to vote for the DA again, or would split their votes.”

Achmat, very deliberately, has chosen to run under the banner of Zackie2024. His 2024 election campaign is a one-off — if he wins a seat, he says, he won’t remain an MP for more than one term. And even if he doesn’t win, he says he won’t try again in 2029. But Achmat says his movement is here to stay — he wants to “make sure that the movement has young people under the age of 35 who can become MPs”.

As things stand, Zackie2024’s greatest asset is Achmat himself. It is difficult to imagine his movement contesting in future elections without him.

This article was first published by the Daily Maverick on 2 April 2024, by Victoria O'Regan.

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