Al Jama-ah won its first seat in the National Assembly in 2019 with 0.18% of the vote. Picture: ANTON SCHOLTZ
Al Jama-ah won its first seat in the National Assembly in 2019 with 0.18% of the vote. Picture: ANTON SCHOLTZ

The leaders of Al Jama-ah would have been watching the numbers nervously as last month's general election results began coming through.

The nerves would have turned to relief when the party became the 14th – and last – to make it into the National Assembly, in a process always touch-and-go near the end of the counting.

For those small parties to scrape in, like Al Jama-ah did, they must cobble together enough votes for one seat, hoping that the mathematics of the seat allocation process favours them. Al Jama-ah knows the twists and turns of this process more than any other party.

The party was formed in 2007 by Ganief Hendricks in Cape Town's Lansdowne. It contested the 2009 election and came 15th nationally with 0.15% of the vote, while Themba Godi’s African People’s Convention (APC) won the last seat with 0.20%. In 2014 Al Jama-ah came 14th with 0.14% of the vote, and just trailed the APC again.

But in between these near misses the party continued to work hard. It built up a small presence at the municipal level, winning seats in Johannesburg and Cape Town in 2011 and picking up a handful of seats in KwaZulu-Natal councils in the 2016 election.

Al Jama-ah became the kingmaker in the Inkosi Langalibalele local municipality in KwaZulu-Natal after winning two seats there and forming a coalition with the ANC. The party was rewarded with the position of deputy mayor.

The party’s hard work paid off in 2019. It won its first seat in the National Assembly with 0.18% of the vote (altogether 31,468 votes), and also picked up a seat in the Western Cape legislature.

Had just one or two factors been slightly different – if overall turnout had been a bit higher, for example – the party could have narrowly missed out for the third time in a row.

Al Jama-ah’s growth has been incremental and modest at times; the party grew by fewer than 50 votes between 2009 and 2014. Its successes are precarious, as they have been for dozens of new and small parties that have sprung up and withered over the past 25 years.

However, certain elements of Al Jama-ah’s success are critical for any aspirant party in SA.

The interactive map below shows Al Jama-ahs share of the national vote at ward level. Clicking on any ward will give the municipality, ward number, and share of the vote for Al Jama-ah, the ANC and the DA.

The map is a good illustration of the proportional representation  electoral system: Al Jama-ah did not win more than 11% in any ward, and in most wards the party polled well below 1%. Similarly, all the party’s municipal seats are PR seats.

Parties with diverse geographical support have traditionally fared better in national and provincial elections than parties whose support is concentrated in one area, possibly due to a shared history of language or culture. The former group includes Al Jama-ah, the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) and the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP). The latter group includes the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the United Democratic Movement (UDM).

Al Jama-ah may have started out in the Western Cape, but the party was able to replicate its support in other provinces and communities with its focus on the religious and constitutional rights of Muslims. Its appeal to a subset of South African Muslims is analogous to the ACDP’s prioritisation of religious Christians. The FF+’s success with minority voters (based on language, culture and economic rights) is also not confined to a specific area.

Al Jama-ah benefited from communal and cultural networks. It was able to campaign through closed WhatsApp and Facebook groups affiliated with religious communities. These networks allowed the party to market its message directly to potential voters – at a fraction of the cost of traditional advertising and campaigning. In a crowded election market, it is critical for smaller parties to cut through the noise and appeal to their markets. It’s also a huge advantage to be associated with informal social networks where there’s a high level of trust and credibility that comes from being within the group.

If support for larger parties continues to slough off and overall voter turnout falls further, smaller parties will benefit disproportionately if they can maintain the faith of their bases. SA’s proportional representation system, particularly in the absence of any minimum vote share thresholds, makes it much easier for small and new parties to win representation.

Al Jama-ah has created a clear roadmap for any party that would be a contender on the national or provincial stage: First, identify your base. Ideally, it’s urban, closely knit, and aligned to your party’s values. Second, contact your base directly through informal, communal networks.

Last, be prepared to work hard to serve your constituency and build support organically. It might take more than one election cycle to gain representation.