Inside the ANC's 'pyramid scheme'

A Leeds University scholar says the ANC's 'gatekeeper politics' has escalated under President Jacob Zuma. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

A Leeds University scholar says the ANC's 'gatekeeper politics' has escalated under President Jacob Zuma. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Patronage – the dispensing of largesse from political coffers down networks of friends, family and supplicants – has become deeply entrenched within the ANC, so much so that, try as it might, the party cannot seem to shake it.

Alexander Beresford, a specialist in African politics at the University of Leeds’s school of politics and international studies, this week presented an early draft of his research paper Power, Patronage and Gatekeeper Politics in South Africa at a University of Johannesburg (UJ) seminar.

Beresford, also a senior research associate at UJ, has been studying the ruling alliance for years. The paper will probably be published early next year and is one that, for all its academically couched care, will no doubt prove a bombshell for the party.

The paper extensively quotes former Cabinet ministers of the Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki administrations, and current members of the party’s national executive committee (NEC). And although the ANC’s public line is that it is dealing with patronage – or even that none exists within the party – those office-bearers are far more cynical about the reality and the chances of change.

“The patronage machine exists because we are at a certain level of socioeconomic development,” Beresford quotes an NEC member as telling him shortly before the national elections this year.

“Currently, the ones left out [and alienated from development] are just too many, and to break the machine of patronage is almost impossible without fundamental policy change.
And policy change means addressing the needs of the overwhelming majority; to organise socioeconomic transformation in such a way that includes the overwhelming majority of our population: they must be included, they must have a stake … and be in charge of their own destiny.”

‘Sordid pyramid scheme’
Based on interviews with activists within the ANC and members from branch level to the highest echelons, plus internal party documents, Beresford’s paper points to what he prefers to call “gatekeeper politics”. This is something towards which he says the ANC has been leaning since the 1950s but which started to assume its current proportions when the party took power in 1994, and is “exaggerated” in the Zuma regime.

At branch level, where it is widely talked about, he says the party is sometimes seen as “some sort of sordid pyramid scheme”.

“It depends on the extent to which it [the ANC] can contain errant gatekeepers,” said Beresford. “If they can contain the internal politics, it can stand up.”

The interplay between money and power is complex, with each feeding the other, but Beresford told UJ students that ANC patronage has two core elements: the distribution of the spoils of power, such as control over developmental project jobs wielded by ANC councillors, and the phenomenon of crony capitalism, where closeness to the ANC provides access to market opportunities and tenders.

In both cases that makes those who guard the gates, whether to government money or to those in power, important – and makes the contest for the position fierce.

“This allows us to understand the factional politics,” he said. “The struggle for who controls the gates is extremely intense.”

For individual communities, the results can be positive: positioning the right local champion in the right faction can get a school built or a road paved. But communities also suffer the consequences when their dire needs are subverted, sometimes sparking street protests, as part of a fight for position.

Even if it can be economically sustained, however, such patronage undermines ideological debate within the ANC and potentially pits party business elites against the working class. And some of the suggestions for fixing it – such as codes of conduct and political education – “will be undermined if senior ANC leaders are seen to regularly flout the very standards they call upon ordinary members to follow”, Beresford warns.

An ANC spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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