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Leadership squabbles in SA’s NFP party compel IEC to make tough decisions

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Picture: Zanele Zulu/ African News Agency (ANA) – National Freedom Party Secretary-General Canaan Mdletshe addresses the media.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

When the National Freedom Party (NFP) was established on 25 January 2011 by its former and now late leader Zanele kaMagwaza-Msibi, there was plenty speculation on what its political impact would be.

The general feeling (which I also shared) was that this party posed a serious threat to the IFP. This view was based on different factors.

The first one was that the NFP’s founder was a popular figure in KwaZulu-Natal, having served in the IFP for many years. She had occupied various positions in the IFP and worked closely with Nkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi who was the founder and leader of the IFP since its formation in 1975 when it was still known as Inkatha ye Nkululeko Yesizwe. Therefore, she had the necessary experience and requisite skill to lead her new political party.

Secondly, kaMagwaza-Msibi had served with distinction as the Mayor of Zululand District Municipality under the auspices of the IFP. Thus, not only IFP members were ready to follow her in her new political party. Some members of the public not aligned to any political party would be happy to give her a chance.

Thirdly, laMagwaza-Msibi was a woman. Given the male dominance in South Africa’s political space, there were many people who looked forward to a female-led political party. The fact that kaMagwaza-Msibi was not just a woman but a seasoned politician in her own right gave even more impetus to this possibility of a successful political party under her leadership.

Indeed, the NFP did not disappoint. The results of the May 18, 2011 local government election saw the NFP making its presence felt. For example, it won a majority of seats in the Dumbe local municipality. It also won a plurality of votes in the Nongoma local municipality. For a new party, this was a great achievement, especially because it contested against the IFP, the party which the NFP had been part of for many years.

Moreover, during the May 7, 2014 national and provincial government elections, the NFP was able to obtain six (6) seats at each level. This was something commendable for a new political party. It was clear that the NFP had not joined the political fray simply to add numbers. Conversely, it wanted to be a force to be reckoned with. Appreciating its presence, President Jacob Zuma appointed kaMagwaza-Msibi as deputy minister of Science and Technology.

But, the NFP faced some internal challenges sooner than expected. For example, during the 2016 local government election, the NFP was disqualified from participating in the election. This was due to its failure to pay the mandatory participation fee to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). This incident did not augur well for the party’s continued existence. In fact, most of the party’s current challenges can be traced back to this period.

It did not come as a surprise when the NFP did not perform well in the 2019 general election. From the six seats it had obtained in 2014 in the National Assembly, it lost four and only retained two. kaMagwaza-Msibi was not reappointed as deputy minister. On 20 June 2019, she resigned as an MP. The official reason was that she wanted to focus on rebuilding the NFP. There is a possibility that this goal would have been achieved had other developments not taken place to scuttle all the efforts to rebuild the NFP. One of them is discussed below.

Before discussing that development, it is important to state that in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) where the NFP had 6 seats, it shredded five during the 2019 general election and was left with only one seat. These were bad signs for a party which was still at its infant stage.

While all the developments enumerated above are worth reflecting on, the reality is that it was the incapacitation of KaMagwaza-Msibi that became a bad omen for the NFP and which brought the party to where it is today!

In 2014, KaMagwaza-Msibi disappeared from the public eye. Initially, it was unclear what had become of her. Later, it was confirmed that she was unwell. There was hope for her speedy recovery. However, the news that she had suffered a stroke dashed any hope for her speedy recovery. It was only in 2015 that she confirmed that indeed she was unwell. After many attempts to save her life, she died on September 6, 2021. Her departure left a leadership void in the NFP.

In fact, even before the death of KaMagaza-Msibi, the NFP was already facing serious leadership squabbles. This was occasioned by the party’s failure to abide by its own constitution. The 2011 constitution is clear on what happens in the event that the party’s president is unable to execute his or her duties. The deputy assumes that responsibility.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. Alex Kekana who was the deputy president of the party faced fierce competition from other members of the party, especially from KZN. Also, among themselves, these leaders claimed to be the rightful interim leaders of the NFP while kaMagwaza-Msibi recovered from her illness. Some individuals would make statements and advance certain views claiming that they had been instructed by kaMagwaza-Msibi. This was a recipe for disaster.

Even when KaMagwaza-Msibi seemed to be slightly recovering and started appearing in public to address meetings, leadership disputes did not end. As other political parties readied themselves for the 2019 general election, the NFP also did the same.

Unfortunately, two parallel elective conferences were held. The one which convened at Ulundi was seen as the authentic elective conference since it was the pro-kaMagwaza-Masibi faction. But another conference was scheduled to sit in the Free State. To make matters worse, another group led by Vikizitha Mlotshwa decided that it was not going to attend either of the two conferences. Later, Mlotshwa who was the party’s Chairperson in KZN resigned from the NFP.

Currently, the NFP continues to face leadership battles. The party’s official stance is that its leader is Jeremiah Mavundla. However, other leaders in the party disagree and claim that Mavundla is not the official leader although it is not clear who they claim to be the official leader.

Given this situation, the IEC has taken a firm stance that it will not disperse any funds to the NFP until it puts its house in order. In its official letter dated 30 August 2022, the IEC stated inter alia that in order not to prejudice any party to this dispute, “the Commission will refrain from taking any steps (including the filling of PR vacancies) at the insistence of any person purporting to represent the NFP until this dispute has been finally resolved by a court of competent jurisdiction regarding who is the leader of the party….”

It continued to say “Similarly, to avoid inadvertently paying over funds due to the party in terms of the Political Party Funding Act, 2018 to the incorrect person, the Commission has suspended all payment of funds to the NFP pending the final determination of the dispute.”

At a glance, this might appear to be a punitive stance by the IEC, especially given the fact that all other political parties have to start preparing for the 2024 general election. However, on the other hand, such a move is necessary. It will force the NFP to accelerate the pace of putting its house in order so that things can go back to normal. The sooner the NFP addresses its internal squabbles, the better for everyone – including the IEC.

The reality is that it is not the responsibility of the IEC to resolve internal leadership squabbles in any political party. The NFP is not an exception. The primary mandate of the IEC is to run elections and announce results. In between elections, its responsibilities include voter education and running by-elections, among other things. Therefore, the onus is on the NFP to address its internal squabbles sooner than later.

The best way to deal with this matter is for the NFP to be guided by its own constitution. Any deviation from that would open floodgates for possible litigation. In the same vein, any real or perceived interference by the IEC in the NFP’s internal affairs could lead to litigation. Therefore, the decision taken by the IEC might look harsh at face value but it is the correct one.

What is happening in the NFP is regrettable. After experiencing problems in 2016, the party gave the impression that it was regrouping. Indeed, it made its presence felt in the recent 2021 local government elections. Ideally, one would have expected that the NFP would build on this success and join hands in preparation for the 2024 general election.

If the party is serious about honouring its late leader Zanele kaMagwaza-Msibi, it would be a great decision by political leaders to put their differences aside and work with the IEC. The decision taken by the IEC is, indeed, in order. It may look tough, but it was necessary!

Mngomezulu is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of the Western Cape.

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