/ 8 November 2017

How the ANC electoral conference should work

President Jacob Zuma
President Jacob Zuma

The ANC’s nomination process to elect a new leadership in December is now well and truly underway. According to the Mail & Guardian, 1138 out of 3800 party branches in good standing have held branch general meetings and nominated their preferred candidates for the ANC presidency.

Of these, 768 backed party deputy Cyril Ramaphosa to take over from Jacob Zuma, and 360 backed Zuma’s choice and former AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. It’s still early days, and more than two-thirds of branches still need to meet and indicate their choice, but already the picture does not look good for supporters of the various ‘third way’ candidates currently littering the field.

The less said about the poverty of the supposed ‘campaigns’ of these candidates, the better. In his column on the subject Eusebius Mckaiser eviscerates the performance of the various presidential hopefuls, and by extension the poor electoral culture of South Africa’s ruling party.

“They refuse to role-model modernity. They are stuck in a political past and clearly do not have the courage to break with the conservative political culture of the ANC — one that is rooted in a history that is now anachronistic.”

This fetish of an anachronistic political culture was on full display this week after Ramaphosa named his preferred candidate for his slate of ANC top six officials, particularly the surprise pick of Naledi Pandor for deputy president.

The ANC was apoplectic over Ramaphosa’s move, which the party bosses felt ‘undermined’ the role of the branches, particularly their right to nominate and elect candidates of their own choice. The conference of the ANC is “a conference of branches”, not provinces or regions, opined spokesperson Zizi Kodwa for the umpteenth time. Moreover, the ANC branch is “the basic unit of the organisation”. The ANC holds to this latter myth because the party apparently believes that the branch is the autonomous site of pure, untrammelled democratic deliberation. Yet everything we know of ANC branches, from the party’s own reports, suggests that it is not. Nor should the branch be considered “the basic unit of the organisation”, because the individual member is.

If it is to escape the long death grip in which it has ensnared itself, the ruling party needs to empower its members, not its branches. The branch is still a structure of bureaucratic control, as much as the province. Only the member is an autonomous unit not subject to bureaucratic manipulation.

So how does the party re-assert the autonomy and latent power of each of its members? End the manipulation of branches (which we see in the mushrooming of hundreds before every national conference). The party can achieve this by changing its internal electoral system.

One of the paradoxes of the post-apartheid ANC is that the party – which has been operating legally and openly for 27 years, and has governed a democracy for more than 23 – has never seen fit to embrace the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ in its own elections.

At last count the ruling party had more than 700 000 audited members (I don’t have exact figures. I’m relying on President Jacob Zuma’s, and his interpretation of the numbers was unhelpful, to put it mildly). But fewer than 5000 people will vote to elect its president, deputy, four other top officials and members of the national executive in December. 3800 of these elite electors will be branch delegates, while the rest will be allocated from the party’s various leagues.

It is a deeply flawed way of choosing leaders. Not only is it anti-democratic, it is needlessly complex and opens itself up to manipulation, fraud, vote-buying, and the factionalised slate politics the ANC professes to be against.

Here’s how the voting system currently works: every branch of the ANC in good standing is entitled to a minimum of one voting delegate at conference. A branch is constituted of at least 100 members in good standing, which translates as 100 members = one vote. Bigger branches get more delegates, based on a formula that allocates one more vote for every extra 250 branch members. This is where the system gets weird, and provides local power brokers with the perverse incentive that has led to the proliferation of ‘fly by night’ branches whenever an electoral conference is around the corner. This in turn has resulted in conference being nothing more than a wholesale auction for branches and their voting delegates.

Think of it this way: you are a diligent, effective and influential local organiser of the ANC, with a following of say, 600 members; you would like to use this leverage to maximise your power or extract benefit from party bosses higher up the food chain. The best time to do that is in the lead up to the national conference, when they need you more than you need them. How would you maximise your advantage? Well, a large branch of 600 members only gets 3 voting delegates to the conference, because 100= one vote + 500= 2 votes. But six separate branches of 100 members each would give you double the number of votes.

Sure, there’s the added administrative burden and the ‘herding cats’ hassle associated with this option, but remember these need not be legitimate, functioning branches. If you can produce documents showing that each has 100 paid up members and has held a BGM, the only people you really need to control are the six conference delegates who will ‘represent’ your bogus branches at conference. This is not in any way far-fetched or even speculative.

This kind of vote manipulation has been happening on an industrial scale in the ANC for years. That is how Mpumalanga, the country’s second-smallest province by population, suddenly emerges as the ANC’s second largest province just before an electoral conference. It’s judicious management of the spread of your membership across branches. And the person who concocts and ultimately controls that corrupt arrangement (in this case Mpumalanga party boss David Mabuza) can name his price with all the presidential candidates.

Here’s how the ANC’s electoral system should work: every member of the party in good standing should cast a single vote to choose each of people in the party’s top six executive structure. Get rid of the representative system where one vote could stand for up to 349 people. How does the ANC manage an election where 700 000 members vote? By getting rid of the electoral conference, for starters. The five yearly national conference should be a forum for party policy-making and self-examination, not vote-buying. Election of national leadership can be organised by postal ballot every five years, with every qualifying member sent a ballot with a return stamped envelope. This is how most modern parties operating in electoral democracies do it. Logistically it isn’t hard at all. The British Labour Party, Europe’s largest party by membership and with at least as many members as the ANC, did it twice in the last two years.

These proposed changes are not merely about electoral reform. They should form an integral part of any process of self-correction and renewal in the ANC after the Zuma presidency. How the ANC elects has a direct bearing on whom it elects. To be sure, the character of leadership is not a function of electoral systems alone. The worst among us need systems of manipulation and control to rise and prosper. But it’s easier to manipulate a conference of 5 000 than the entire membership of 700 000. It is time the ANC raised the bar.

Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy