'People see us as a last hope': NGO founder on landmark ConCourt victory that changed SA elections

Constitutional Court.
Constitutional Court.
Felix Dlangamandla, City Press
  • The New Nation Movement - the unknown NGO at the centre of the landmark ConCourt judgment - wants a more active role in the parliamentary process to come. 
  • The ConCourt ruled the Electoral Act must be amended to allow independent candidates to run for provincial and national elections. 
  • The movement's founder, Bulelani Mkhohliswa, details how it all started.

It took a few ordinary South Africans to change the face of South Africa's elections forever. After seeing what they term as an unjust government and political system, which only benefitted the few, a movement was formed. 

Last week, the New Nation Movement (NNM), in a landmark judgment, gained a monumental victory to amend the Electoral Act, which will allow independent candidates to run for provincial and national elections. 

In reading the historical judgment, Justice Madlanga said the Electoral Act unjustifiably limits the right to freedom of association guaranteed in Section 18 of the Constitution.

The apex court found the Act unconstitutional to the extent that it requires adult citizens to be elected to the National Assembly and Provincial Legislatures only through membership of political parties.

The court ordered Parliament to amend the Electoral Act within 24 months.

News24 spoke to the man behind the judgment, who also co-founded NNM.

It had been almost a week since I scheduled a meeting with Bulelani Mkhohliswa.

After days of arranging and rearranging his schedule, Mkhohliswa, the man behind the small non-governmental organisation (NGO), made time for an hour-long interview.  

Together with First Indigenous People, the NNM went from a pillar to post, to fight for communities to be better represented in Parliament.  

"From 2014, we engaged at the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC). As we were coming from a church background, we felt the church was not taking responsibility for government while they represent a lot of people. At the time, we had a group called the Kingdom Government Movement, which had 12 pillars, and politics was one of them. We started engaging the IEC on Freedom of Association."

When the IEC shut their doors, Mkhohliswa said he decided to form an NGO, with Mkhangeli Matomela, a former political leader in the ANC.

In April 2017, the NNM was formed. 

While Mkhohliswa and his partners investigated the possibility of taking the Electoral Act to court to demand it be amended, another NGO, Vuka Africa Foundation, had lost its own fight against the constitutionality of the Act in both the high court and the ConCourt.

With the help of advocate Alan Nelson SC, Mkhohliswa said they took the fight to the Western Cape High Court, basing it on section 19(3)(b) of the Electoral Act. He added:

We were going as ordinary people and we had a strong sense that, when you remove personalities and you put the community first, even the courts will consider this matter.

Dependent on donations and pro bono work by legal presentation, the Western Cape High Court ruled against NNM.

After years of work and hours spent by attorneys on the case, he said the loss did nothing to dampen their spirits.

Instead, Mkhohliswa said he knew the matter would need to be escalated to the apex court.  

This led to legal giants Tembeka Ngcukaitobi taking charge, pro bono, and leading the team's legal representation at the Constitutional Court. 

Last week, the ConCourt declared the Electoral Act unconstitutional.

Work begins

Mkhohliswa's face beamed when Madlanga read each page of the judgment.

Afterward, when the interviews were concluded, applicants from Vuka Africa, First Indigenous People and NNM hurdled together with their attorney, Teresa Conradie, in prayer. 

"There's a tendency that there is nothing good that can be led by black people; the truth is this case has been led by ordinary people and I'm the face of that. What was even more overwhelming was the weight of the judgment itself. That actually the work begins - as the English would say, we've opened a can of worms. If this is not properly administered and handled, in 20 years from now many people will see us as villains."

He added that there are future plans to work with political parties, such as Cope and the IFP, to monitor the progress of the amendments in Parliament. 

He said:

We cannot just wait and watch closely while Parliament is dealing with this. We want to be very active. We would want to engage people like Mosiuoa Lekota. The IFP has shown interest on this matter, so we want to engage most political parties on this matter, so that they could be our eyes and ears in Parliament; to also assist us to be granted access, so that we can be officially part of this process.

Ordinary communities have now also come out to seek help from the organisation, he said. 

"Since the judgment, people have just flooded our websites and emails with information of corruption in their communities. People say they see us as a last hope. Somehow, we have been catapulted to these people who are fighting for justice.

"What is important is that we need to mobilise and organise our communities in active citizenry, so that we do not have just one organisation watching corruption - we can be corruption watchers ourselves."

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