Did the ANC fatten up for the slaughter in Polokwane? An audit of membership statistics suggests the wholesale recruitment of new members to boost the girth of provincial delegations has played — and will play — a role in the outcomes at Limpopo.
The ANC’s audit of membership in preparation for the party’s 52nd national conference reveals a party in rude health. But if one scratches the surface of the data, the audit also suggests important questions be asked relating to the well-being of the organisation, its development and its ability to implement programmes and practices in line with the party’s vision.
This high turnover points to inconsistent programmes of action and engagement at branch level. Continuity in branch life is important and the spectre of the use of membership as voting fodder is raised by fluctuating figures.
As a consequence, branch life has atrophied at the same time as there has been a massive escalation of capacity in the state. For example, the presidency’s latest annual report reveals that the office has 377 posts for policy researchers, while Luthuli House has only one researcher.
The 2007 audit found that, at 30 June, the ANC had a total membership of 621Â 237 and 2Â 694 branches in good standing. Across four official national audit dates over the course of ten years the party has shown significant growth, raising national membership by 235Â 459 members, or 61% in real terms. This means that nearly one in two current members of the ANC were not counted among its number at the Mafikeng conference of 1997. It means the ANC has changed as it has grown.
Yet this 10-year continuum of growth hides significant fluctuations in membership across the audit dates. In the period 1997 to 1999, for example, all but two of the provinces audited show a loss of membership, with the Western Cape losing a full half of its members. Prior to the Stellenbosch Conference the party turned the tables, recruiting an additional 31Â 000. Following that national conference, there was a slowing of membership growth, with 23Â 862 members added as the party prepared for provincial conferences in 2004/5. In preparation for the 2005 national general council (NGC), there was a marked decrease in membership as the party lost nearly 40Â 000 members, almost one in 10.
In the run-up to the Polokwane conference, the figures show a massive upswing in membership, suggesting mass recruitment.
The two years spanning the 2005 NGC and the Polokwane meeting has witnessed a 54,75% increase in real terms as nearly 220Â 000 members have been added to the 2005 membership of 401Â 454.
A large percentage of these new members are accounted for by phenomenal growth in the Eastern Cape, which has more than doubled its provincial membership (a real increase of 116%) since 2005.
Between 2005 and 2007 only the Western Cape, hamstrung by internal factionalism and demoralised by the loss of Cape Town in the 2006 elections, suffered a real decrease in membership, having lost 641 members or 1,7%.
It is clear that the ANC has failed to address the challenge of fluctuating membership and a high turnover of cadres. The link between active recruitment and elective conference dates suggests that, in some cases, branch formation is driven by the imperatives to extract influence and access to state structures through ANC constitutional forums.
The news that the Eastern Cape failed to register 36Â 000 members because certain branches logged recruits after the audit deadline highlights an intensive drive for new members directly related to the audit and the national conference.
This has been in evidence in Polokwane as we have watched the ANC change before our eyes. But the changes may be good for democracy if we consider them to be a renewal of a democratic spirit.
Contrary to the general trend towards urbanisation in South Africa, there appears to be a marked return to the countryside within the ANC.
Urbanised provinces with rapidly increasing populations such as the Western Cape (16,7% increase in population since 2001) and Gauteng (13,9%) have not performed admirably in recruiting new members, while predominantly rural constituencies have made significant progress. The rapid expansion of membership in the Free State and Northern Cape, for example, has taken place in the context of low population growth of 2,4% and 6,7% respectively.
This could be attributed to the ANC’s engagement with traditional leaders and the fact that it is easier to mobilise in rural areas.
The apparently increasing rural bias of membership patterns undermines the potential impact of Cosatu on the ANC in the medium term. Although the union has participated vociferously in lobbying for policy reform and personalities in the run-up to Polokwane, Cosatu does not have any dedicated voting representatives at the conference.
Cosatu relies on influencing the national conference indirectly through the participation of workers in ANC structures and the potential impact of union debates and policies on the mainstream of ANC thinking. Its members, the majority of whom are industrial workers, are necessarily concentrated in urban and peri-urban environments.
The national audit suggests that Zwelenzima Vavi’s call for Cosatu members to “flood the ranks” of the ANC in order to influence trajectory has failed to make a marked impact on patterns of recruitment.
The conspicuous increase in membership since the 2005 NGC confirms the contestation over the trajectory of the ANC in its second decade in power. Branch delegates constitutionally make up not less than 90% of the voting delegates for Polokwane. Those seeking power — or influence over power — within the ANC will rely on these delegates to mandate a new leadership collective, president and policy proposals for the medium term.
Just over 4Â 000 ANC members, out of a total of more than 10-million ANC-supporting voters and more than 20-million registered voters, hold some of the keys to our collective political and democratic futures. The national audit of ANC membership suggests a range of trends at the grassroots of the organisation at odds with the superficial glow of rude health.
Jonathan Faull is political researcher at Idasa