Don’t isolate factions, rather see what useful role they can play

It’s time a new public narrative on factions in political parties encouraged institutional critique, an innovative response to internal strife and debunked dominant ideas that factions are about aliens or muckrakers.

Factions’ usual classifiers are out of step with constitutional governance. We need a more nuanced understanding of them.

Although polarity can’t be solved, factionalism debates, irrespective of political party, should reflect our society’s political economy. South Africa is in an era of leadership battles that are less about ideological differences in the classical factional sense and more about personalities.

To date, most established political parties in post-apartheid South Africa have experienced a rising tide of factions pushing for institutional reform. Multiple factions comprise members united in their desire to take control, without the leadership collective’s public approval.

Every party has factions that divide with intent to destroy opposing groups and advance their own interests.


Factionalism’s hallmarks are: open competition of ideas; leadership contests; rivalries; struggle over strategies and policy direction; and use of available and new resources.

President Jacob Zuma and his deputy at the ANC’s women’s and youth leagues’ elective conferences explained factionalism as “gatekeeping, bulk-buying of membership, intimidation, careerism, patronage, political enslavement of new members, crass materialism and the use of money to secure votes” in his party.

Factionalism shifts the relationship between a party’s groupings. Any faction, whether it supports a united or divided incumbent leadership, uses several resources to manipulate rules of engagement.

Factionalism’s classifier is its repulsion for ideological discipline enforced by incumbents in leadership. Conversely, for incumbents it is about controlling power and disposing those considered high risk for their continued party leadership.

Either way, it attacks leadership’s cognitive structures. The party is only important if it guarantees the faction’s interests and gatekeepers.

When in power, a faction continues to expand its power base while purporting to represent broader interests. After elections, the winning gatekeepers and their coalition often announce a need for unity. This comes with the same passion as occurs when the winning faction fights other factions.

The pronounced unity going forward is a hollow statement and won’t happen. Pre-election conditions are solidified for the continued destruction of opposing groups. Gatekeepers control access to new sites of power.

The gatekeeper, a faction’s public face, leads patronage supported by a benefactor-insurer. Benefactor-insurers such as Geordin Hill-Lewis for Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane serves as resource-mobiliser and provider of barefoot campaigners. Gatewatchers, who are driven by intricacies of ambitions focused on a higher price, are interested to see who enters a specific faction and how it affects a party’s balance of forces, a common concern for gatewatchers and gatekeepers. But gatewatchers have no loyalty to a specific faction at a given time and a penchant for positions with immediate public rewards. While the benefactor-insurers and the gatekeeper have a mutually enhancing beneficial relationship, when this sours, integrity and trust are dispensable.

ANC gatekeepers, such as Smuts Ngonyama, have become gatewatchers; gatewatchers have become gatekeepers, such as newly elected women’s and youth leagues’ chairperson Bathabile Dlamini and president Collin Maine.

So, factions create opportunity for change in broader leadership. Factions shape parties as social movements, and the internal institutional configuration of parties shape factions. Yet factional influence over party dynamics is from a prism of power viewed only in terms of instability and ability to shape short-term outcomes and leadership prospects.

Party statements must be nuanced, given significant approaches to the courts based on constitutional law, with the ability of factions to influence long-term sustainability of a party and the constraints and opportunities in leadership shifts and governance. Cogent leadership, governance and management suggest new spaces must be created for party dialogue on: open competition of ideas; rules for identification, behaviour and party protection of gatekeepers; rules for the benefactor-insurers in a context of the ethos of a party; reviews with intent of the mechanisms of suspensions and expulsions; a centralised model for management or elections of leaders and leadership in parties that validates candidature from regional to national levels, especially for those contesting public positions at all levels of government; and differentiated roles of members and associates especially in relation to the composition of voters.

Suffice it to say, while exploring better governance of factions, factionalist and factionalism create opportunities for open dialogue and setting the terms of engagement, there are not guarantees that what Zuma says will not continue in his party or in opposition parties. In any political party it is about the balance of forces – sorry, factions and factionalists.

All political leaders across the political divide are delivered through a dominant faction or a strong coalition of cliques having requisite numbers of members. While it provides a desired outcome, it is an illusion of democracy. So, instead of ostracising factions and factionalists, new ways must be explored to keep the political and strategic capacity of parties in place viewed from a factional lens.

Daniel Plaatjies is a political economist and visiting academic at Free State university’s business school

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