Kanthan Pillay: How a five year old – and Maimane – sparked creation of ZACP

LONDON — In my experience, that all-important spark which initiates disruptive projects is always the product of something radical. For Kanthan Pillay, co-founder and chair of the politically disruptive Capitalist Party of South Africa, it was the death of five year old Lumka Mketwa. As he relates in this missive below, the child who drowned after falling into the pit latrine at her new school was a key piece in the puzzle that created a political party that our pre-election survey shows has has already captured the hearts of many Biznews community members. Pillay is documenting the journey to election 2019. Here are the first two instalments in his series leading up to May 8. How it began, and the earliest recruits into the Purple Cow. Appropriately, he’s called them Genesis and Exodus. – Alec Hogg

By Kanthan Pillay*

1. Genesis

For many of us, there are pivotal events which trigger thought processes that lead to ideas that lead to action. For me, one of those moments came when I looked at this picture of this child. I was first devastated, then angry. I’m still angry.

This is five-year-old Lumka Mketwa on her first day of school last year. What’s not to love? Look at that face: there’s a trace of apprehension but also excitement. She has her new uniform, her jersey, her school bag, her shoes are polished. She has her whole life ahead of her.

Weeks later, almost exactly a year ago today, she was dead. She drowned in sewage after falling into a pit latrine. And I cannot stop being tearful when I picture her last moments; the fear, the struggle for breath, the inability to call out. I have daughters. It is the nightmare of every parent that something untoward might happen to their child, but this is a horror beyond nightmare.

My outrage around Lumka’s death was one of the first pieces of a puzzle that came together in June. I last voted for the ANC when I put my mark next to Thabo Mbeki’s name in 2004 as I had done in 1999. I voted for Helen Zille in 2009 and Mamphela Ramphele in 2014.

I would probably have voted for Mmusi Maimane in 2019 except he did something I found to be utterly crass – he used his own wife as an example of white privilege. And I realised that I had no party to vote for in 2019.

This got me thinking about the nature of our political superstructure – the 400 people elected to the National Assembly. And I realised that most of them are incompetent.

That’s an outrageous statement, so let me explain my thinking. If these people were competent, they would be able to step into employment in the private sector and earn as much as they do in Parliament as MPs. Ask yourself how many of our MPs are in a position to do that?

I then began thinking about the nature of problem-solving in Parliament. When asked about the school toilet scenario, the minister said it would take R10-billion to fix the toilets, and did not know when they would start, and when it could be completed.

(I’ve held down a number of high profile jobs in the private sector and had I told my board of directors that I have no idea how long it will take to fix a problem, they would have replaced me on the spot. But that’s an aside.)

Using school toilets as an example, how long would it take me to fix the problem, and at what cost? (The answer is six months and less than R1-billion.)

What other problems could we fix? The ideas came fast and furious: cash in transit heists, beneficiation of mineral wealth, policing, drugs, welfare, violence against women, tourism, transport, cost of medical care… all quick, efficient, inexpensive solutions that can be very quickly implemented by legislation at minimal cost IF there are competent imaginative people in Parliament to push those solutions.

How many competent imaginative people would it take?

Helen Suzman, whom I knew and admired, took on the entire apartheid establishment as a lone Progressive Party MP for 13 years from 1961 to 1974. In her first session alone, she made 66 speeches, moved 26 amendments and put 137 questions.

Today, 10 people in Parliament would be able to cover the most critical portfolio committees – Finance, Health, Education, Police, Trade and Industry, Public Enterprises, Energy, Public Service, Labour – while playing a watching brief over the other ministries as well.

How many votes would one need to get 10 people into Parliament? Working on an average of 43,000 votes per seat, it would require less than half a million votes.

What type of party would it be? I’m a classical liberal by and large. As core values, Liberté, égalité, fraternité resonate well with me. Those values are best fed by capitalism. Most of our political parties hate capitalism.

So on 16 June 2018, I registered the domain “capitalist.org.za”, designed a rudimentary website and brought it online. The heart of a mission statement went up:

We are South Africans who want to live in a country that works.

We believe that politics is too important to be left to politicians.

We believe that the best way to grow our country is by ensuring every citizen has the freedom to build new wealth.

I then masked the ownership of the domain, password protected the website from prying eyes, and set off to recruit co-conspirators.

2. Exodus

The best stories are full of symbolism.

Kanthan Pillay
Kanthan Pillay’s Twitter profile pic @KanthanPillay

The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars, the Lion King, and the Harry Potter saga are essentially the same story.  Our hero, through unexpected circumstance, is forced to undertake a quest. He acquires unexpected allies to assist him, goes through a journey (which is essentially one of self discovery), suffers loss and betrayal, has a revelation of sorts, and ultimately destroys the ring or blows up the death star or drives out the hyenas or defeats Voldemort.

The ancient Indian epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata follow this pattern. So too do the stories of Theseus and the Minotaur, Perseus and Cetus, Jason and the Argonauts…

For my part, even though I’m an atheist, I love the symbolism in the Old Testament (which, in different forms, is the root of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The simplicity of its core ideas gives it power that endures across eons.

Take the Ten Commandments: Almost anyone can relate to the idea of ten simple rules, or principles, by which to live one’s life.

But there’s an interesting quirk about such lists of principles; while people recognise the list as a whole, some items on the list are actually more important as cultural memes than others.

Try this with your friends: ask them whether they have heard of the Ten Commandments. The answer will inevitably be yes. Then ask them to name them. I doubt many people will get beyond a few like, “thou shalt not kill”, “thou shalt not steal”, “thou shalt not commit adultery”.

The US Bill of Rights, too, is a ten commandments of sorts. Most people know the first, second amendment, and fifth amendments but draw a blank about the other seven amendments.

I already had my core three values, or principles, or commandments – “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”. I needed to find competent people who shared those core values and were willing to join me on this damn fool quest.

I had my first job as a journalist at age 19. I was running a news desk at age 24, and every position I’ve held since then has involved a leadership role.

I say “leadership” and not “management” because those are very different things. One can “manage” a call centre, or cashiers at a supermarket, or bricklayers, or a fleet of truck drivers – those jobs follow well-defined scripts with well-defined outcomes. One cannot “manage” a team of journalists, or scientists, or radio presenters, or surgeons. They need to be mavericks – independent-minded unorthodox persons who understand the rules but will interpret those rules very differently from the way their leader does.

So my co-conspirators (as I had already begun to think of them) would need to be intellectual peers, not subordinates. As a close friend of mine is fond of saying, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”

I began jotting down some names. Interestingly, some of them I had never met. I knew them from their public utterances, pieces they had written, and (of course) social media.

There was a doctor based in KZN known for her outspoken views on health care. There was a fashion designer in Cape Town who worked on UN matters. There were a couple of prominent media personalities who are also successful entrepreneurs. There was a product of Obama’s YALI programme who was already making her mark globally. There was an investigative journalist who is known for her exposés of atrocities. There was a businessperson who had set up shop in his home town of Mt Frere in the Eastern Cape.

There was only one person on the list who was a personal friend, a former journalist turned property group executive based in Cape Town.

But my starting point was to be talking to two people who were almost polar opposites.

First, Roman Cabanac (who prefers to refer to himself as a “legal consultant” rather than a lawyer).

I had come across Roman on Twitter where he was clearly a troll, but one who did so with unusual insight.  In 2016, he co-founded a podcast called the Renegade Report, and I was the second guest to be invited to the show.

Over the next period, two significant things happened in Roman’s life: he turned 30, and he became a father.

I remember circa 2004 telling my then boss, ETV CEO Marcel Golding, that we only really grow up when we become parents. (He didn’t believe me at the time, but I know he does now having had twins when he turned 50.)

So it was with Roman. His views became more nuanced. He became more focussed on solving problems. And it was clear he took great delight in being a very present father in his daughter’s life. And the quality levels of his conversations on the Renegade Report podcast grew accordingly (to the point where it is our country’s most downloaded weekly podcast).

Second, Neo Kuaho, who I best describe as a successful serial entrepreneur.

I met Neo in around 2008 when I was CEO of Yired (Pty) Ltd which owns YFM. He had cold-called me at my office with an idea to set up a digital portal providing information about paid internship opportunities for graduates and scholarships for school leavers. I gave him the time of day because he knew how to code, which immediately set him apart from the literally hundreds of people who pitched ideas to me every week.

I was intrigued by the idea and so gave him a radio slot between 8-9 am on a Saturday morning. The YFM audience is usually asleep at that time, so it would be an opportunity to create appointment listening for those who were serious about moving their lives forward. The show became a relative hit.

A few years later, I launched a competition called the Y Business Elevator. It was a programme to incubate startups by providing them with many of the essentials that players in the information economy need: office space, internet connectivity, financial oversight, and free advertising on air. It was a no-brainer for me because these were all sunken costs for the business, but could mean live or die for a startup.

I enlisted Neo’s assistance as an unpaid volunteer to drive the selection process and he did so with great fervour. When the two winning candidates emerged, he personally mentored them through the support period until they had found their feet and struck out on their own.

At the time, I was so impressed by Neo’s work ethic and dedication that I mentioned to him that he should run for president some day. He chuckled then, saying that he was too young.

I had my conversations with Roman and Neo in quick succession. I fleshed out the essence of the principles of the party which would guide us. They were both swayed by the audacity of the idea. And they agreed to recruit others to our cause.

Next week: Jedi Mind Trick

(Were you expecting Leviticus?)

  • Kanthan Pillay is the party chair and co-founder of the Capitalist Party of South Africa (ZACP). 
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