Branch paradox is central to the ANC -- and its 53rd national conference in Mangaung in less than 10 days' time.
ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, the silent, unconfirmed contender to the party's presidency, has not yet accepted a nomination to contest the presidency against Jacob Zuma. He has, thus far, left it to the "independence" of the branches to decide the leadership.
The ANC branches, as leaders such as Motlanthe and secretary general Gwede Manatshe are at pains to reiterate, are the core, foundational building blocks of the party.
Conversely, as has been demonstrated in internal reports, the ANC correspondence filed with the Constitutional Court, allegations and analysis ahead of Mangaung and the unattended "alien tendencies" that emerged in the build-up to the party's conference in Polokwane suggest that the "head cornerstone" of the ANC is in crisis – the ripples of which are affecting the party, the government and the country.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who led a task team to investigate 419 complaints against the nomination lists for councillors before last year's local government elections, was unstinting in criticising branches in her report to the ANC's national executive council.
According to the report, the "treating of membership forms makes it possible to have parallel structures". Membership forms, she said, were withheld and used to "build their power base and influence processes, thus disempowering members and branches. This often leads to manipulation of processes."
Similar allegations have surfaced in affidavits and ANC correspondence filed in the Constitutional Court, where disgruntled Free State members are contesting the legitimacy of the province's leadership installed in June and led by Zuma supporter Premier Ace Magashule.
Several Free State branches allege that parallel general meetings were held to ensure a pro-Zuma outcome at branches. They also claim that branch membership and meeting attendance lists were doctored and, in some cases, dead comrades signed attendance registers.
In a letter to ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe in June, former Free State provincial secretary Sibongile Besani spelt out several of the branch characteristics observed by Dlamini-Zuma's task team.
They especially highlighted the role that regional leadership could allegedly play in locking down a branch's intellectual and active "independence" – a methodology sharpened in KwaZulu-Natal as it mobilised for Zuma in the build-up to Polokwane in 2007.
Besani noted that "regional structures refused to give branches their files and compiled attendance registers for the [branch general meetings] themselves". The result was "malicious compliance with audited figures".
Other issues Besani raised included the deployment of "parallel [branch general meetings] conducted in some branches", members who were "made to sign registers in order to fake the quorums" of meetings, membership files "being tampered and fiddled" with and provincial executive committee members being "selectively deployed" to "consolidate their lobby groups throughout this process".
The last charge is similar to allegations raised in the eThekwini region – the ANC's largest – where the Mail & Guardian has seen a regional executive committee deployment list for branch general meetings on which only a core of five members (all considered staunch pro-Zuma lobbyists) have been deployed to branch meetings, despite the committee having about 20 members.
In letters to Luthuli House, branches have pinpointed problems with national executive committee members being deployed to their areas – raising further questions about the perceived "independence" of branches and their democratic functioning.
Pro-Zuma backers such as Minister of Justice Jeff Radebe, Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa and Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu have been criticised by the pro-change branches in internal ANC correspondence.
In a letter to Besani from Tankiso Mosia, secretary of the Goven Mbeki branch, he complained that Mthethwa had not followed the rule that people joining the ANC for the first time, or those rejoining, did not have voting rights.
Mosia also alleged that Mthethwa did not follow audit guidelines. In reply to a question about a time change for a branch general meeting, Mosia said a text message had been sent at 2am indicating that the meeting was being moved from 2pm to 10am. He added that "he don't [sic] want to entertain discussion".
"Surprisingly, Mthetwa allowed comrades from other branches to be part of that branch general meeting," the letter stated.
A complaint to Shabangu from the Enoch Sontonga branch executive committee stated that a biannual general meeting convened by Radebe "without the knowledge of the branch executive committee" was marred when "the police force was used to intimidate members when they tried to engage [Radebe] on the violation of the organisation's guidelines for biannual general meetings".
The letter alleges that the police told members they would be "harshly" dealt with if they did "not listen to what the national minister is saying".
A large number of the 37 complaints emanating from the Free State are from the same regions Dlamini-Zuma investigated for local government election complaints.
The emergence of regime-change factions in the Thabo Mofutsanyana and Motheo regions – where Dlamini-Zuma's report found that the "majority of disputes related to allegations of manipulation and irregularities in branch general meetings" – suggests that a compromised methodology still infects these regions.
Letters of complaint filed in the Constitutional Court allege that people such as Thabo Mofutsanyana regional deputy chairperson Thabo Manyoni were active in this "fiddling of branch membership files" and "manipulation in the regional list conference in 2011".
That regime-change lobbies have developed in these areas raises questions about their political integrity – whether the calls are for the movement's benefit or for personal gain.
In a paper for the Oliver Tambo centenary lecture, national executive committee member Joel Netshitenzhe said: "Desperation creeps in as people cling to positions of responsibility because there is no other platform for personal accumulation. The centre is unable to correct wrong things done by foot soldiers on whom leaders depend in electoral contests, and the beneficiaries of patronage in turn feel obliged to perpetuate defective leadership."