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September 22, 2018

G Spot: Rise of the briefcase political parties in SA

It’s party time here in South Africa. On August 3, the polls will open for South Africa’s fifth democratic municipal elections. For your information, in SA, elections follow a five-year cycle, with national and provincial polls held together and municipal elections held two years later.

I say it’s party time because, as is the case in Kenya and across the continent, as the elections approach, the number of political parties available as a vehicle to power increases. 

Currently, South Africans are confronted by a smorgasbord of political parties — 206, to be exact. They’ve increased from 79 in 2000 to 97 in 2006, to 122 in 2011 to now 206.

Not all the registered parties are national. In fact, a lot of them seem to be registered at municipals only. So, for instance, the Western Cape province, where I live, has 77 parties contesting the elections.

With so many parties on offer, one can only imagine that some of them have been formed purely as a vehicle to access political office.

I know in Kenya, there have been cases of what we used to refer to as “briefcase” political parties, which would be formed and registered and then pedalled for sale to the highest bidder.

This was usually someone — or a group of people — who had lost the nomination of their previous party or had been otherwise disappointed and urgently needed another party to get them elected.

Back in the early 1990s, when the multi-party phenomenon hit Kenya, I remember there was a plethora of political parties, including what came to be known as “briefcase parties”. These were parties formed and registered by speculators who had seen the future and were gambling on making a killing.

You see, they were betting on the fact that some of the huge egos that make up the political class in Kenya would eventually realise there was a problem in having too many chiefs and no Indians. It is alleged that some of these speculators, who in effect sold their parties to the highest bidders, did very well out of the exercise and soon, as happens with all popular money-making schemes in Kenya, others were jumping on the bandwagon.

At one point, friends and colleagues of mine suggested registering the a party with the acronym Mende — the Movement of Enlightened Democrats —  to cash in on this briefcase party trend. In the end, it fizzled out as most of our bar talk did in those days.

I don’t know if briefcase parties are a thing yet in South Africa, but I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one or two chancers hadn’t tried their luck yet. If not, perhaps I should contact my old buddy Kham to see if he ever patented Mende.

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