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Exploring South Africa’s Lesser-Known Political Forces

Local Government Elections 2016, 3 Aug 2016 | South Africans… | Flickr
South Africans lining up to vote in the 2016 local election

Written by Dylan Simpson, contributions from Adrian Elimian

On the 29th of May, South Africa will hold its seventh democratic election, marking a pivotal moment in the country’s history as voters determine whether the ANC will for the first time in history lose its parliamentary majority amidst rolling blackouts, surging crime rates, and a slew of embarrassing corruption scandals. In these discussions, the larger and more established opposition parties — the DA, the EFF, and the IFP — have dominated the landscape and occupy the periphery of public attention, especially abroad. Yet, amidst these polls, we see a growing role within this dynamic political ecosystem for smaller and newly established parties.

With coalitions likely in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, the Western Cape, and potentially even the Free State along with an almost certain national coalition, the ANC will have to face the challenge of looking for reliable coalition partners and consequently, the smaller parties will quietly shape the political landscape and governance of the entire nation. Thus, understanding smaller political parties and their backgrounds, histories, ideologies, aims, and voter bases can illuminate the challenges facing the ANC and the country. In this article, we will focus on four we believe offer valuable insights into the intricacies of South African politics, considering factors such as their size, support base, historical significance, and ideological stances.


Founded in 2020, ActionSA has seen an almost unparalleled level of success for such a young party and could be a crucial kingmaker in the next election when it comes to provincial coalitions. Originally a breakaway split from the DA, the party was created by former Mayor of Johannesburg Herman Mashaba.

Mashaba came late to politics, born during apartheid into an impoverished family in the Transvaal, he became a successful businessman after he founded his hair company “Black like me” which sold beauty and hair products mainly for black Africans. The company was a huge success, eventually going on to become the biggest hair product company in South Africa, a symbolically important success as Mashaba became among the first group of successful post-apartheid Black entrepreneurs.

Motivated by what he saw as the ANC falling into corruption and mismanagement, Mashaba joined the main liberal opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), in 2014 arguing that they held the “best chance of delivering a better life for all.” He quickly rose through the ranks of the party to become the Mayor of Johannesburg in 2016, governing for over 3 years with relatively large amounts of support. However, he left the DA in 2019 after growing frustrated at the party leadership amid a wave of other senior black figures in the DA leaving the party. Mashaba explained his reasons for departing the DA by arguing that the party and senior figures like Helen Zille, the former premier of the Western Cape and current Chairperson of the DA, had failed to comprehend and address the complex and painful racial dynamics of the democratic dispensation stemming from apartheid.

“I cannot reconcile myself with people who believe that race is not important in their discussion of inequalities.”


Policy-wise, ActionSA can broadly be described as economically liberal, favouring a free market approach to most problems from energy, land, taxes, and workers rights. This is reflected in their energy policy, where they argue for less centralisation and allowing for private companies to sell energy to the government and even privatise large parts of state owned enterprises and certain power plants. The party also argues that this privatisation model will be helpful in stopping the widespread corruption and mismanagement within public utilities, and that a switch to a public-private partnership model instead of full state control over most infrastructure projects will be highly beneficial for all South Africans. On law and order, they are largely conservative and “tough on crime.” Although the party has given up on its pledge to reinstate the death penalty, it continues to support a range of other tough measures on crime, including more funding and officers for the police along with an increase in prison capacity.

Additionally, immigration is a core issue for ActionSA — not a unique focus for a lot of new parties. ActionSA is strictly against illegal immigration, pushing for the deportation of all foreign nationals without documentation and taking a strong stand against alleged “open border” policies. Mashaba and other ActionSA politicians have even gone on US Republican-style “border tours” to highlight the issue. This rhetoric along with controversial statements from ActionSA leadership have led to the party being accused of peddling and promoting xenophobia. Mashaba has made comments “declaring war against illegality in our city” and linking crime to an alleged rise in the number of undocumented immigrants. These comments are in the context of a spike in xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment in South Africa, with Operation Dudula — a prominent xenophobic vigilante group — attacking and intimidating immigrants. Given immigration (and especially illegal immigration) is becoming increasingly less popular amongst South Africans — particularly amongst the disgruntled unemployed and working class, it is hard to gauge how much this widespread criticism of their bigotry from the media and their political allies like the DA have hurt ActionSA support, if at all.

When it comes to winning votes, ActionSA have done exceptionally well in a very short span of time. The party’s first electoral test were the local elections in 2021; by only contesting six municipalities, ActionSA focused their resources more effectively and were able to test the party’s appeal in a range of diverse areas — with a stated goal of winning the votes of a wide variety of racial groups. When it came to this, ActionSA was incredibly successful and achieved maybe the most diverse voter base of any party in South Africa. In the municipalities the party contested, it achieved an average of 7.43% of the vote, leading them to gain 2.4% nationally; its ability to attract voters from all races has been key to its success. This is a remarkable achievement in the backdrop of the previous election in 2019 when voting seemed to become more racial divided.

If ActionSA can repeat its gains made in 2021, it could have a shot of being one of the largest parties in the country and becoming a key kingmaker in coalitions at a provincial level and (if the ANC falls dramatically in future elections) even at a national level. The fact that ActionSA support is multiracial gives the party the unique advantage of a high support ceiling and increased potential to grow their base by taking voters from a wide variety of parties from the DA to the EFF.

ActionSA is also member of the Multi-Party Charter — a coalition agreement between several parties who aim to unseat the ANC and cooperate in election campaigning. ActionSA making big gains means it would play a big role in any of these coalitions and for many parties in the MPC, they will have to rely on ActionSA and its uniquely broad racial appeal to reach voters they traditionally cannot. However many votes they win, ActionSA’s performance will be crucial for determining the governance of South Africa and the future of racial trends in voting.

Patriotic Alliance

Set up in 2013, the Patriotic Alliance is a xenophobic, “far right” Coloured interests party. The PA is the brainchild of two main figures, Gayton McKenzie and Kenny Kunene, with the party’s stated aims upon its founding being to tackle the immigration crisis, gang crime, and give greater voice to the interests of the Coloured community.

McKenzie, the party President, is a businessman who openly acknowledges his past as a racist gangster and a convicted bank robber. He has spoken about his journey of personal redemption, crediting his faith for leading him away from a life of crime and bigotry to become a motivational speaker, author, and entrepreneur. Kunene, the other founding figure of the PA and the current party deputy president, has a similar backstory. At a young age, he was involved in student politics against the apartheid regime but his life quickly spiralled into one of crime, being convicted of running a Ponzi scheme for which he served six years in prison along with admitting participation in robberies and other types of fraud. However, upon being released from prison, he became a consultant and lobbyist for mining companies as well as the operator of a successful seafood distribution business, for which he was dubbed the “Sushi King.” Kunene has played into this character, flexing the wealth created from his business by eating sushi off of scantily-clad women at parties. After frustration at the leadership of Jacob Zuma, he joined the EFF on its Central Command team; although he was catapulted to a very high position, he quickly left the organisation to form the PA with McKenzie a few months later.

With a focus on these personalities rather than ideology, the PA is idiosyncratic on policy. On economics, the party supports a strong welfare state and more public-private partnerships to boost state capacity and improve public services, all while pledging to massively expand renewable energy to fix nationwide rolling blackouts. The PA has pledged to massively cut crime, with little details on how they plan to do this besides mass deportations of illegal immigrants, mandatory conscription for all South Africans and the reinstatement of the death penalty. The party espouses a “pro-poor agenda” focused on the expansion and improvement of social services but these policy issues have gotten little attention in comparison to their biggest issue: immigration.

The PA is much more extreme on this topic than ActionSA. McKenzie has criticised Mashaba on the topic, saying: “People say we and Herman Mashaba are talking the same language, I say we are not. Herman Mashaba was the mayor of Joburg for three years, yet more foreigners came and took more buildings – and why does he want to remove them when he had three years?” The party has made numerous policy pledges to ‘tackle the immigration crisis’ such as scrapping the right to an education for children of undocumented parents and denial of all basic public services to undocumented migrants, including medicine. At a stadium rally where McKenzie alleged that the use of hospitals by undocumented immigrants was leading to the deaths of South Africans, McKenzie shouted that “After we have been sworn in, I am going straight to Rahima Moosa Hospital [a Johannesburg maternity hospital] where we are going to switch off the oxygen of illegal foreigners.” McKenzie has made clear that if he was in national government, a “mass deportation” programme would be a requirement for any coalition agreement.

If the PA had its way, South Africa would undeniably have one of the toughest anti-illegal immigration systems in not just the whole of Africa, but the world.

Nationally, support for the PA is small but from local government elections and by-elections we can see the vast majority of its support comes from Coloured communities, particularly in deprived rural areas. For those not familiar with the term, “Coloured” refers to a Southern African group of mixed heritage/race with ancestry mainly from the Khoisan, Malay, African, and Afrikaans peoples. It is important to note that the term “Coloured” does not have the offensive connotations as it does in much of the West. Like Black and Indian South Africans, the Coloured community was oppressed during apartheid, subject to internal displacement and segregation and today the group still suffers from widespread poverty and crime. A large part of the Coloured community perceive the ANC’s prioritisation of advocating for the struggles of Black Africans, exemplified by their endorsement of affirmative action policies favouring Black Africans over Coloureds, as exacerbating their marginalisation and impoverishment. Consequently, this sentiment has fueled a surge in anti-ANC and populist attitudes in the Coloured community. The lack of reliable polling data on smaller parties makes it tricky to determine how well the PA will do nationally but in the Western Cape — where Coloureds are the largest group, the party has the potential to make big gains.

Although the PA is not a member of the MPC, ActionSA have said they are open to working with them; conversely, in local governments, the PA has governed alongside the ANC and EFF. It is thus feasible that the PA could govern in coalition with all types of parties and as such is one to pay close attention to in terms of the governing balance of the country. The PA will also be an important test to see in contrast with other parties, particularly ActionSA and the DA on the relationship between race and voting. Will identity politics grow in importance when it comes to voting? Or will the PA perform poorly with most Coloured voters rejecting their rhetoric? The implications that the answers to these questions have will be massive for South Africa politically and for the racial divisions of the nation.

Freedom Front Plus

Formed in 1994, the Freedom Front Plus (VF+) is a conservative party with the stated objective of fighting for the interests of minorities, particularly Afrikaans-speaking people, through a “small, effective government.” Founded by Constand Viljoen — a former Chief of the apartheid-era armed forces and prominent Afrikaner political figure, it is a right-wing conservative party.

On economics, the VF+ espouses support for economic liberalism, backing privatisations of transportation and large parts of the state electricity grid. Additionally, support for lower taxes and less welfare spending is core to the VF+ economic agenda, alongside a job creation policy focused on creating more attractive conditions for foreign investment. The party strongly opposes any National Health Insurance system and wants to cut regulation of the healthcare industry, arguing that stronger government involvement in the sector hikes up costs, leads to inefficiencies, and stifles innovation.

Farmers comprise a significant part of the party’s electoral base, thus VF+ is very supportive of agricultural tariffs and improving farming infrastructure along with strongly opposing any land reform that would lead to expropriation without compensation. It also supports lower taxes for agricultural land and better policing of rural areas to fight the issue of farm murders. On social issues, the party’s big focus protecting minority language rights and the scrapping of affirmative action laws. Freedom Front Plus politicians have also been open to a referendum on Western Cape independence, while the party supports greater devolution of powers in the areas of transportation and policing.

Electorally, VF+ hovers around 2% of the national vote with the bulk of their support amongst ethnic Afrikaners and Afrikaans-speaking people. This support base is reflected in the fact that their lowest vote share is in Kwa-Zulu Natal, which has the lowest Afrikaans-speaking White population of any province.

Ficheiro:South Africa national election 2019 winner by VD.svg – Wikipédia,  a enciclopédia livre
2019 Election results by the largest party in each Voting District (Orange is VF+)
Distribution of Afrikaans versus English as home language of white South Africans

For coalitions, VF+ aims to be pragmatic and have been involved with a multitude of political parties on both the right and the left historically, with former party leader Pieter Mulder even being a member of Zuma’s cabinet. Today, however, the party is a member of the Multi Party Charter and so it is unlikely VF+ will join a national coalition with the ANC. If the MPC gains a majority in certain provinces, which seems probable, the VF+ will play a key role in the theoretical government formations.

RISE Mzansi

The newest party on the list — having not even contested an election yet, Rise Mzansi is the only party on this piece that is on the left of the political spectrum.

Formed in April 2023, the party was founded (and is currently lead) by Songezo Zibi. Zibi, who grew up in the apartheid Bantustan of the Transkei within a family involved in the anti-apartheid movement, became a newspaper editor and co-founder of the Rivonia Circle think tank which aims to boost public political participation.

The party is grounded in social democracy. On governance, their objective is to reduce the number of ministerial positions and substitute cadre deployment — the practice of placing party activists in positions of power in state institutions — with a transparent, meritocratic approach. Following in this theme of greater transparency, Rise Mzansi also plans to revamp the procurement system, increase accessibility of public records, and establish a new anti-corruption agency. Additionally, the party advocates for electoral reform in the form of a modified version of proportional representation that combines elements of open list proportional representation and constituency-based representation, departing from South Africa’s current fully proportional representation system.

On social issues, RISE is overall progressive: supportive of LGBT rights and open to the decriminalisation of drug usage while maintaining prosecutions for drug trafficking and dealing. On economics, the party aims to foster public private partnerships and protect access to social grants, arguing that the failure of the ANC’s economic policies can be largely attributed to their corrupt and incompetent implementation. Additionally, RISE also pledges to support small black- and women-owned businesses with upskilling and access to capital along with supporting greater funding for green energy projects to address the climate and energy crises.

Historically, new South African parties that are not breakaway movements and/or lack well-known figures in politics have struggled to gain a large number of votes, even with significant media hype and minimal public criticism. The most successful new opposition parties (NFP, EFF, ActionSA, and COPE) were all breakaway parties and had established figures, while the less successful parties started from scratch. A lack of pre-existing experience in campaigning, party machinery, and personalities all play a role in this poor track record.

We spoke to Irfaan Mangera, the Civil Alliances Coordinator for Rise Mzansi, about the party and the future of social democracy in South Africa. Although Mangera acknowledged that there are tall hurdles for newer parties to overcome, saying “voters tend to gravitate slowly to new parties,” he explained RISE Mzansi believes that the unique feeling of despair in South Africa has created “an appetite for something new.” They have also made clear that they don’t aim to just stay around for one election cycle with them planning to contest local municipalities in the 2026 elections “irrespective of where we land” in the election and aim to build on slowly from gains made this year.

“We want to be in a South Africa that helps those who cannot help themselves because of the various structural challenges that have historically existed, and the only way that can happen is through the advancement of social democratic values outside the ANC and a modernisation and expression of those values in solutions that are growth centred and pragmatic in application.” — Irfaan Mangera

The party seems to be focusing on the provinces of Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Western Cape — the three largest provinces by population, with online posts of RISE placards in these areas easy to find online. Party leadership have claimed the party is targeting at least 5-6% of the vote, roughly 872,000 votes using 2019 totals; this is unlikely but if it were to happen, would be groundbreaking. RISE Mzansi has had a lot of media coverage but it has not contested any by-elections yet and given it is a small party, the nature of polls makes it quite difficult to predict how much support they actually have amongst the electorate. Regardless, South Africa’s proportional representation system means a party only needs a very small amount of the vote to get some representation in parliament with Al Jama-ah, a minor Islamist party winning a seat in parliament with only 31,000 votes (0.18%) in 2019.

In terms of coalitions, RISE has flat out stated they will not go into coalition with the ANC, with Zibi comparing such a decision to the UK Liberal Democrats’ electorally disastrous decision to go into coalition with the Conservative Party in 2010. However, RISE Mzansi has also refused to join the MPC, saying it does not want to be tied down to a coalition agreement before the election.

How well RISE Mzansi does in 2024 will be a good way to see if there is an appetite for non-ANC centre-left politics in South Africa and if small new parties can actually establish themselves, bucking the historical trend of them struggling to get off the ground.

The full Correspondence with Irfaan Mangera: @IrfaanMangera on X


While the spotlight and headlines often shine on the brightest and most towering figures in South African politics, the importance of smaller and newer parties cannot be overlooked. Several new coalitions are inevitable after the 29th of May and as a result of this likelihood, these smaller parties will be crucial in the governing of the nation even if they are relatively small in size.

Throughout this article, we have seen the various roles these newer and smaller parties play in South African politics, from representing different minority interests to championing different causes and ideologies. It is undeniable that these smaller parties will face numerous challenges from a lack of an established party infrastructure to intense racial polarization. Nevertheless, the outcomes of these parties, whether successful or not, will provide significant insights into the country’s political climate and future governance. Therefore, they are worth keeping a close eye on as the election approaches this year.

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