Terrence Corrigan on Maimane’s BOSA: Giving power back to the people

As South Africa grapples with governance crises and a declining national mood, Terrence Corrigan considers how the emergence of Build One South Africa (BOSA) offers a fresh approach to politics. Led by Mmusi Maimane, Nobuntu Hlazo-Webster, and Khusta Jack, BOSA seeks to break the ANC’s grip on power and foster a cooperative, prosperous, and equitable society. With a commitment to citizen-led political leadership, BOSA aims to give power back to the people by engaging communities, endorsing credible candidates, and championing policies focused on employment, township development, and an enabling environment for the middle class. While its model faces challenges and questions remain, BOSA’s idealism and ambition may resonate with South Africans yearning for a new form of politics and a reset of the citizen-state relationship.

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BOSA: will it give power back to the people?

By Terrence Corrigan*

The news reports on the radio as I drive along the M1 are all about the big story of the day: VIP protection officers have been caught on camera assaulting a motorist. One after another, brandishing their firearms, they stomp on a man lying prostrate on the ground. Then they board their vehicle and depart. No attempt to perform an arrest – had one even been warranted – and in full view of a stream of road users. A cross between contempt and brutality, it looks more like the actions of a skinhead gang or a mob boss’s enforcers than agents of a constitutional democracy.

I’m on my way to an interview with Nobuntu Hlazo-Webster, deputy leader of Build One South Africa (BOSA), the party launched by Mmusi Maimane in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, as an intriguing prospect that deserved attention.

Welcomed in by Nobuntu’s assistant, I revisit those thoughts. What did I hope to achieve, she asks. Well, I’m old enough to remember the late 1980s and the sense that the crisis in our country demanded some sort of fundamental rethink. For good or ill, but we couldn’t go on as we were. Seems to me, we’re at a comparable point now.

Bosa’s website makes a bold claim: “Nearly 30 years into the ‘New South Africa’, the ‘Rainbow Nation’, has entered a decline. But South Africans, who are always resilient and optimistic, are coming together to take control of their reality, and to Build One South Africa. Founded and led by Mmusi Maimane, Nobuntu-Hlazo Webster and Khusta Jack, with a team of dynamic business and community leaders and civil society activists, BOSA presents an innovative solution to citizen-led political leadership.”

Read more: BOSA’s Mmusi Maimane – “In 2024, I’ll be one of four options for SA president”

Best impulses

The notion of a political formation that could channel the best impulses of South African society is a longstanding one. Heralding a ‘new’ type of politics, it would simultaneously break the ANC’s hold on increasingly destructive power and reorient the workings of our politics towards something that would foster co-operation across society, pragmatism in our governance, and prosperity and equity (true equity, in the sense of participation and opportunities for all) in our economy.

Nobuntu has agreed to meet me to discuss BOSA’s position. She cuts an impressive figure. She is Impeccably turned out and confidently articulate. First impressions suggest a businesswoman rather than an activist – which, given her background, is not inaccurate. She speaks with clarity and conviction, as someone who believes in what she is committed to. There is a definite sense of a consciousness shaped by religious faith, something she shares with Maimane and is an influential factor in bringing them together.

We exchange some banter about the state of the country and our personal takes on it: for both of us, the question of our children and the future that might await them. The dire mood in the country, we agree, owes less to present circumstances than to fears for the future. Life for our children may be no better – maybe substantially worse – than it is for us.

So why BOSA? ‘The current political party structure has failed to advance the power of the people,’ she says. ‘Look at how parties are organised now, with the hierarchies, lists, succession plans. Not necessarily what’s best for serving the interests of South Africans, but rather what’s best for the parties. Especially the ANC.’

Value proposition

BOSA’s value proposition stems from that: ‘giving power back to the people.’ Depending on how one approaches this, there is an element of populism or profundity. On one level, it seems to promise a direct, participatory mode of politics. On another, it could be read as prioritising people’s agency above the interests of a political elite and the institutions under their control. More on that in a moment.

BOSA grew out of what was initially conceived as a civic platform (One South Africa, OSA), but this was always going to be inadequate as a plan to deal with a national crisis rooted in the misuse of political power, and its exercise in the hands of an often venal and incompetent state. BOSA has had to take on the functions and operations of a political party, while attempting to be something more.

To me, this is the kernel of the challenge. How to conduct politics in a manner that does in fact break the established mould. BOSA has emphasised a new electoral system (something that the incumbent government has little enthusiasm for) and – in its antecedent form, OSA – has previously supported independent candidates. Now that it is entering the lists, it will have to compete within the system as it exists, an arrangement that works against the direct citizen power and influence that BOSA advocates.

So far, Nobuntu tells me, BOSA has set out to network with sympathetic civic bodies – such as religious groups and local development organisations which it describes as ‘affiliates’ – and to undertake engagements with communities to listen to concerns and discuss solutions to problems that afflict their lives.

Meanwhile, potential candidates are put forward by means of nominations (a thousand signatures being required), after which these are referred to an internal selection committee, which will then vet and ultimately approve them. The hope is to secure credible candidates with existing constituencies, who exhibit experience, qualifications and are untainted by impropriety. So far, over 470 applications have been received. Nobuntu describes these as community leaders, ward councillors, independent politicians, businesspeople, and civil society activists.

The aim, too, she says, is to identify and enable new and especially young talent into its leadership.

I reiterate my reading that this is inevitably going to run into the problem of ranking on its lists. BOSA’s appeal is built on co-operation with leaders with distinct constituencies, some of whom will just not make it into a legislature. This is just the way the political system orders things, and how. This, Nobuntu concedes, remains a work in progress. A possible solution, she says, will be to introduce a primary system, on the US model, to set up its lists.

Incidentally, BOSA will be announcing their first 30 candidates this month. Mmusi Maimane will be BOSA’s presidential candidate. (Interestingly, invoking the charisma of party leaders has been standard political fare since 1994, even though this is an office in respect of whose selection the broad population has no real influence. Case for reform here too?)

As an aside, BOSA is building a professional administrative apparatus. Don’t underestimate the importance of this. A political organisation is invariably ripe for fissuring, and BOSA’s model could make this a particular risk.

Read more: Mmusi Maimane, self-styled ‘Man in the Arena’, targets 5m voters for new political party BOSA

Supporters

Leadership is only one issue; even more important will be getting supporters on board. Although open to all comers, BOSA’s emphasis falls on two broad constituencies. The first is those aged 20 to 34, particularly the disaffected, non-voting, and currently unregistered. For these, disillusionment with their lot in life and despair at their prospects have alienated them from organised politics. BOSA’s hope is that it will catalyse their enthusiasm and get them to turn up at the ballot box.

The second group consists of older, more established people: the middle aged and middle class. Better off than the country’s average and an essential driver of any successful future for the country, offering the required skills, entrepreneurial ability, and tax base, they are seeing both their living standards and their children’s future put at risk by the failings of the state and the politics that oversees it. I guess both Nobuntu and I would fit in here, as she relates concerns about the effective double taxation that we are subject to, one paid to the government for dysfunctional services, and another paid to private suppliers to make up for it.

For both of these, she argues, the key will be the economy, although with different emphases. For the young, it has to be about employment – BOSA’s most well-known promise has been a ‘job in every home’, something quite revolutionary, if it can be delivered. She goes on to say that the existing private sector just doesn’t have the capacity to deliver the sort of job-rich growth that the country needs, so there will be a need rapidly to expand the entrepreneurial base, particularly in South Africa’s townships. To this end, it proposes a series of policy measures, such as Township Economic Zones which would be financed through the sale of state holdings in listed companies and using the proceeds to fund investment in the ‘township economy’; undertaking an extensive public works programme; and establishing a voluntary civilian service scheme. This would be alongside private-sector initiatives to encourage employment at rates and conditions in line with those on the public works programme.  

The middle class, by contrast, needs an enabling environment. Stabilise the energy situation, maintain the country’s infrastructure, and get crime under control. In other words, I surmise, let the middle class exist with reasonable security and expectations for its children’s future, and it will stand on its own two feet. I rather like that.

Nobuntu says that their policy platform is being fleshed out in conjunction with experts, and that BOSA is under no illusions about the scale of South Africa’s challenges (she shakes her head when she mentions a recent engagement around the country’s sanitation infrastructure).  But she is optimistic that things can be turned around. ‘The issue,’ she says, ‘is leadership.’ It’s a theme that runs through our discussion.

Okay, so BOSA has its systems, its policies and its target audience. If it can make its electoral mark, how does it see its role unfolding?

Operative concept

The operative concept here is coalitions.

Coalitions are inevitable, but South Africa needs to figure out how to make them work. ‘It seems that there is a huge focus on making the ANC go, but that can’t be the sole reason. We need to think about delivery beyond getting the ANC out.’

Nobuntu sets out a number of points on which durable coalition arrangements should be based: defining what each party will contribute and understanding inter-party dynamics; keeping the focus on issues; setting goals for individual administrations; and instituting measurable KPIs.

Good in theory, though BOSA as an organisation has no experience in the messy attempts at coalition government that have been headlined over the past few years. Is this an advantage or a disability? It envisages representation built on established community leaders. Does this bring valuable commitment and pragmatism to such an arrangement, or does it open the way for instability, as these leaders seek better deals for the specific constituencies they represent? Would BOSA’s national leadership defer to the judgements of its local structures and affiliates in these matters or would it establish a national framework?

Maybe the big question is whether BOSA would work with the ANC.  BOSA’s position is that there is no party it would not engage with, though co-operation would need to be based on shared principles and values. Its entire orientation towards South Africa’s politics would make an agreement with the ANC surprising, to say the least.

On the other hand, BOSA has kept its powder dry on its relationships with the opposition. Representatives will not be attending the forthcoming Moonshot Convention, though they have attended some meetings as observers, not participants. ‘It’s really early to discuss this. Ultimately it will be about what the people say,’ Nobuntu remarks.

Read more: ‘I’m ready to be President’ – SA politics disruptor-in-chief Mmusi Maimane expects a prominent role after 2024

Radical centrists

BOSA sees its ideological position as ‘radical centrists’, which I understand to mean that it will hold strong positions, but is willing to accept ideas associated with both ‘left’ and ‘right’. ‘Pragmatism’ is a word that comes up repeatedly.

Nobuntu and I say our goodbyes over some light chit-chat. She has some misgivings about the IRR, but I am grateful for her time and for the forthright engagement. We agree to continue the discussion in future – including about the Institute and its positioning. It’s good to communicate, even where stark differences exist. Indeed, especially when stark differences exist.

I leave in no doubt about the passion and sincerity behind the BOSA initiative. There is a palpable idealism at work, which is admirable. I’m not entirely convinced about the viability of its model, at least at present. In its early iteration, BOSA took up electoral reform as a signature issue; in the absence of fundamental reform – specifically the absence of proper constituencies – the idea of community-based activists standing for office will be a difficult one to manage. I can’t shake the conclusion that it proposes a mode of politics at odds with the representative system.

I also think that BOSA will have to navigate some tricky territory in dealing with what is likely to be a rather ideologically heterogenous slate of supporters and candidates. Its success will depend on whether it can transfer admiration from the activists and leadership figures it hopes to attract to the party brand.

On the other hand, something is shifting in South Africa’s political life. Perhaps the crisis of governance and the souring of the national mood mean that South Africa’s people may now be amenable to a new form of politics, or, more accurately given BOSA’s target audience, an engagement with politics. Perhaps the inability of South Africa’s opposition parties to gain the traction necessary to displace the ANC and reset the political environment will give the BOSA offering an appeal that many previous efforts have failed at.

Presidency

I find it refreshing that BOSA speaks candidly about wanting the presidency; we need ambitious articulation like this. In an era of coalition governance, it has staked its claim. Will it also serve as a stabilising force in our fractious coalition habitat, or merely add another layer of complexity?

The radio comes on as I turn the key. More on the assault. Later in the day, and in the days that follow, the story remains hot news. Outrage all round, but unsurprisingly, a number of commentators have expressed doubt that any real consequences will follow. I’m inclined to agree.

The event is emblematic of so many wrong turns that South Africa has taken. It is a visual record of what much of the South African state has become – an abusive, extractive tool presiding over a subject population, while invoking the vocabulary of a constitutional democracy for its legitimacy. ‘Giving power back to the people’ has a particular resonance. South Africa needs to reset the relationship of the citizen (mark that word) and the state. And perhaps this is the promise that BOSA is making.

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*Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission.

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