ANC leadership battles should be open and democratic

Much of the infighting in the ANC, which is paralysing both government and the party, is the result of outdated codes, traditions and rituals governing the elections of leaders of the party, especially that of the president.

The opacity, secrecy and lack of transparency in internal ANC elections open the system to manipulation, corruption and the abuse of state institutions such as the intelligence services, the police and the judiciary, and also raises the possibility of selective prosecutions to sideline rivals. Because of the rules’ opacity, incumbents and dominant factions can rewrite and manipulate the rules to favour their leadership campaigns and to undermine opponents.

The problem faced by many African liberation movements is that the top leadership is usually selected by very small cliques and presented to branches and national conferences for rubber-stamping.
The leadership candidates are usually presented as one slate with the preferred presidential leader at the head (in some cases a two-slate system was allowed). These practices usually stem from a time when these movements operated as clandestine opposition parties, when such practices were defended as preventing disunity and fostering cohesion. In many cases, including that of the ANC, such practices continue—even now that these movements are in government. This devalues democracy.

President Jacob Zuma and ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe have banned all public talk about the leadership succession in the party, saying such talk is premature. Yet the reality is that almost every political manoeuvre by the ANC leadership now is aimed at influencing the direction of the party’s leadership election at the 2012 national elective conference in Bloemfontein.

No matter what one’s views are of ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, it is fair to say that if he still supported a second term for Zuma it is most unlikely he would have been suspended. Some kind of face-saving compromise would have been cobbled together.

Zuma says he would “never defy” a nomination for a second term as ANC and South African president. Meanwhile, one has to be politically blind not to see he is running a tough and determined campaign. The other day, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe unexpectedly issued a statement that as a “loyal and disciplined member of the ANC” he is “not involved in any campaigning or lobbying for the presidency of the ANC”, but meanwhile others are running spirited campaigns on his behalf.

Worse, since the 2007 Polokwane conference, presidential candidates are mobilised around a slate of candidates to the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC). Then, in 2007, the slate was limited to one for then-president Thabo Mbeki and the other for Zuma, with one candidate for each position on either the Mbeki or the Zuma slate. This meant that individuals were not elected on merit but on the basis of their allegiances. In such a situation, mediocre candidates are usually elected to key senior positions in the ANC.

It is likely that the ANC’s 2012 leadership election will be decided on slates, probably two only: one slate for a second presidential term for Zuma, the other against. But democracy within the ANC and in the country generally would be better served if the ANC democratised the way it elects leaders.

‘Mandates questioned’
The very obvious problem with the current flawed system of internal elections in the ANC is that elected presidential and other leadership candidates will always have their mandates questioned. Losing groups will always feel afterwards that the winning candidates won unfairly. The winners will continually be challenged by those who lose out, especially in situations such as that now faced by the ANC, where the winning slate monopolises state patronage, positions and business deals, and could even hound out those on the losing slate.

Democratising the ANC’s presidential elections would bring better leaders to the fore.

There is a higher premium on quality leaders in infant democracies such as South Africa, where democratic institutions, political cultures and nation-building efforts are still nascent and where undemocratic leaders can damage the system.

Among the worst failings of the system of African liberation movements, whereby leaders are chosen by small cliques, is that the most talented, those with the best ideas, especially young leaders from outside the old patronage networks, are almost never elected to the top leadership. This is because the cliques that supervise elections fear they may shake up existing, lucrative patronage networks.

In fact, in most cases the leaders chosen by such small cliques in these liberation movements are not selected for their holistic leadership qualities, such as the ability to bring new ideas or leadership to the party and the country, but for how best they can balance factional interests.

Thus, African liberation movements may have quality leaders but they almost never rise to the presidency. The criteria for leadership nomination are narrowly delineated to produce leaders who may have struggle credentials but little skill in leading complex and changing societies. In the environment of increasing global uncertainty, and in a world driven by technology, the certainties of the past cannot offer a reliable guide to the future. The existing system favours patriarchy and older leaders, or it favours younger leaders who mimic the old in their thinking and behaviour. Partly as a result of this phenomenon, very few African countries since independence have been able to elect new, younger and more dynamic leaders.

South Africa’s democracy would be much enhanced if the ANC were to introduce the idea of American-style party primaries into its presidential election campaign, with presidential hopefuls going directly to both the ANC membership and their own supporters, making a case for why they should be elected as president.

Groups within the tripartite alliance—trade unions, civic groups, communists—could nominate candidates. A period could then be set for campaigning and defending manifestos. All party members could then vote. All parties receiving public money should be required to prove that their internal elections are conducted in ways that are in keeping with the democratic norms of South Africa’s Constitution.

More broadly, and moving beyond the internal elections of parties such as the ANC, South Africa’s current electoral system of proportional representation should be changed into a constituency-based system. This would make members of Parliament, legislatures and local government directly accountable to those in their constituencies who elected them, not to party leaders, as is now the case.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, in a prescient argument in a 2006 discussion paper, said that the current system “undermines independent thought”, because individual careers depend on endorsement by the party leadership and by the ANC deployment committee. The document argued that unless the system changes “the movement towards sycophancy is inevitable”.

Proportional representation reinforces the party’s power to make or break the careers of independent-minded leaders, even if they are competent. It makes it possible to protect leaders who are incompetent but who are perceived to be loyal to the party leader.

Both the Mbeki and Zuma presidencies have ignored the very useful proposals made by a government task team appointed in 2002 to investigate the most suitable electoral system for South Africa. The team, led by the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, proposed that three quarters of the current 400 MPs be elected on the basis of a constituency system.

Such a system would increase accountability in our electoral system, allowing communities to elect their representatives directly and to recall them if they are felt to be failing that community.

This far into South Africa’s post-1994 democracy, voters, especially ANC members and supporters, have simply stayed away from the polls if they are unhappy with the party. Many ANC members and supporters view other parties as inadequate. A vote means little if opposition parties are weak—the norm in many poorly governed African and developing countries.

Perhaps we could add to every South African ballot paper a box that gives voters the opportunity to vote for none of the parties on the ballot paper. In this way, they can still exercise their vote while expressing their disapproval of the quality of all the political parties and leaders up for election.

William Gumede is honorary associate professor, Graduate School of Public and Development Management, Wits, and co-editor of The Poverty of Ideas (Jacana)