There is no compelling reason for the ANC to remain enslaved by liberation struggle habits. Almost 23 years into democracy it is time for the governing party to habituate itself to new political ways of being.
Take the cringeworthy way in which the battle for the leadership of the ANC is (not) unfolding. The party leadership pretends there isn’t already a debate raging in its ranks about who should be elected to the top positions in the party later this year.
Lobbying has started already. Factions have already emerged. Former political foes within the tripartite alliance have started, behind the scenes, to co-operate with each other to ensure their slates might have the best chance of being elected. Horse trading is well under way.
So why on earth is the party leadership telling its members, the media and the public not to talk of succession?
A vow of silence doesn’t help to ensure cohesion within the party. Differences about who should lead and what the next vision and plan for the country’s future is to take to the electorate in 2019 aren’t going away just because you are not debating these issues openly and publicly.
There is no legitimate fear about letting candidates speak in the first person, own their ambition and make a case for their fitness to hold office within the party and ultimately within the state.
There is no reason why the party shouldn’t embrace transparency.
There are two parts to the party’s misplaced attitude towards open contestation for leadership positions. The first is that this attitude is rooted in the fairly opaque nature of liberation-era politics. When you are fighting a monster like the powerful and immoral apartheid state, maximum transparency can be costly in the fight for freedom.
Liberation movements need a mix of limited freedoms in their deepest structures — because ideas still need to be debated to ensure the best ones guide the fight for freedom — but also an acceptance of a degree of command structured leadership. Liberation movements aren’t wholly opaque, of course. But they certainly aren’t blueprints for what political parties should aim at in a democratic culture premised on deliberation and participation.
The ANC’s current leadership sounds archaic in its insistence that no one should talk about leadership succession. They are showing us how hard it is to teach old political dogs new tricks. The awkward truth of course is that the ANC never really got the point of internal democratic culture. It fears democratic habits rather than embracing them as a means to choosing the brightest and the best to lead the party and the country.
And that is why the party makes a bizarre distinction between debating the ideal traits one wants in a leader, and directly naming and evaluating actual candidates for these positions that will soon be vacant. This is disingenuous.
Not least because in reality ANC members are already doing both: thinking about what kind of leadership it needs as our country marches towards the next general election, and who should be elected to that leadership structure.
The second issue here is a continued refusal to make full sense of the thumping that the party received in the local elections last year. The youth are disproportionately affected, as a demographic, by the stubbornly high levels of unemployment and low economic growth that will remain features of our economy for a while yet.
Young people have disproved the lie that they are apolitical. They are engaged. They are protesting. They are deeply committed to justice and fighting exclusion. That is why we see protests in the academy and also why many unemployed young people are often visibly present in service-delivery protests.
A crucial characteristic of this demographic that the ANC isn’t paying enough attention to is weak loyalty to any one of the main political parties. Struggle memory has little effect on their political orientation. They want a responsive state that is demonstrably committed to bringing about a more just South Africa regardless of who it is that is in charge of that state.
The implication for the ANC is that liberation-era habits that have no resonance with this increasingly younger set of active citizens is a recipe for failure. The party needs to embrace the structural changes in how society works that have become everyday reality over the past 20 years.
These includes technological and social changes that must influence the party’s internal processes and habits if they are to remain relevant.
Unlike in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, we now have digital identities and online platforms that facilitate the free flow of information and continuous 24-hour debate between citizens. In that context you cannot control the minds of citizens. They know too much. They have more agency than ANC elders had. They can organise easily.
The ANC must embrace modernity and accept that the world has changed irrevocably since demo-cracy’s dawn. Voters are not blank slates onto which the ANC can spray archaic political rhetoric. The ANC must embrace transparency and open contestation.
After all, the struggle was for democracy, wasn’t it?