/ 30 January 2021

Political parties move online but risk losing inclusivity

South African Politician Mbali Ntuli Challenges John Steenhuisen To Live Television Debates
Did the Democratic Alliance’s 2020 virtual Federal Congress achieve equal access, and what does the move to digital politics mean for the upcoming elections? (Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

In article two of the My Vote Counts (MVC) series on Intra-Party Democracy (IPD) the focus shifts towards decentralised and inclusive party elections and policy-making. 

Covid-19 restrictions caused an unprecedented shift to digital platforms that could ensure remote working and learning. Just as students and workers had to adjust to online working, so too did political parties. This move raised concerns for equal access and inclusiveness, with political parties and leaders faced with the task of trying to be inclusive and transparent with their decision-making processes. 

As we move further into a diverse technological space, how do political parties stay true to the principle of inclusiveness? With no precedent for this, political parties are trying new ways to continue their work such as the Democratic Alliance (DA) hosting both its policy conference and Federal Congress virtually. Here we look at how the DA and others have tried to navigate this new space.

IPD is essential to allow for fair and inclusive participation by members and to hold party officials accountable, which in turn has the potential to combat abuse, corruption and misgovernment. In the first article of the series, the elements of accountability and fair disciplinary rules and outcomes were discussed using the example of Andile Lungisa.

Key to determining how inclusive a political party is would be to examine how it elects its executive members and the manner in which policies are drafted. This is made clear at important political events such as a party’s national conference. Overly centralised power and the abuse of power by political elites within political parties is a systemic problem in various countries, including South Africa. Some of the revelations at the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture indicate this type of abuse by political elites. It underscores the importance of transparency but also of inclusive policy and decision-making that takes into account the concerns of all South Africans.

During 2020 various political parties tried to continue with their work online. A prominent example is the policy conference of the DA held in September 2020 and its Federal Congress held over the last weekend of October. The DA’s hosting of two virtual conferences during the pandemic raised questions about inclusiveness and equal access for its members, who come from different social and economic backgrounds.

The DA wasn’t the only political party in South Africa to make use of virtual platforms to discuss important party elections or policy making processes. At the beginning of December 2020 the national executive committee, the highest decision-making body of the ANC, met virtually to discuss legal options on whether it can force its members implicated in serious crimes to step aside while investigations take place. Other important policy-related matters were also discussed at the virtual meeting and the outcomes communicated to its members through press releases.

The Economic Freedom Fighters’ Central Command Team, the party’s highest decision-making structure, and the party’s War Council, met virtually on 13 January 2021. At the meeting a decision was reached to suspend all political activities of the party pending further guidance by the national government on the Covid-19 pandemic.

During the last weekend of October in 2020, the DA hosted its second virtual political conference, which was lauded by some media publications as the first of its kind in South Africa. Due to strict Covid-19 lockdown regulations, the DA was unable to go ahead with its in-person May 2020 Federal Congress (its elective conference) and instead opted for this long-awaited congregation of its members to take place digitally. 

Concerns were raised about the lack of internet connectivity among delegates from disadvantaged areas and those from rural villages. There was also an apprehension that not all members would be able to use the digital platforms and that the level of engagement and discussion would be more limited than in a conventional setting.

Prior to the policy conference, DA member of the provincial legislature in KwaZulu-Natal, Mbali Ntuli, raised concerns over policy decisions taken at the conference needing to be ratified to ensure that party members were in agreement. There were other concerns that policy issues would not be adequately debated and that policy considerations would merely be “rubber-stamped” at the conference. To mitigate these concerns the party hosted policy workshops in the run up to its virtual policy conference.

In the case of the Federal  Congress, where party leadership is elected, senior party insiders argued that the DA’s then interim leader John Steenhuisen would have the upper hand against his rival, Mbali Ntuli. This was due to what was seen as Steenhuisen’s extensive exposure through the party’s online platforms during the lockdown period. Steenhuisen hosted an online programme twice-weekly, dedicated to updating the party’s supporters and followers on South Africa’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, before the party’s Federal Congress. Forging ahead with the virtual conference during strict lockdown regulations meant that Steenhuisen’s opponents were limited in rallying support for themselves among delegates ahead of the Federal Congress. 

Mbali contended that staging a virtual conference would disadvantage delegates who were less tech-savvy. However, DA spokesperson Solly Malatsi provided assurance that  workshops on how to use the Zoom platform were held, delegates who needed data to access the platform were provided with data and those without internet connectivity could access “hybrid venues” to follow the proceeding. The public could also access the Congress via YouTube.

It is unclear the extent to which the DA was successful in ensuring members could participate and that the policy decisions were reflective of the party as a whole, but these are challenges that will not disappear soon and that all political parties will be forced to grapple with.

  • How will parties guarantee equality of digital access when there is extreme digital access inequality in our country?
  • How will parties ensure that their members receive the necessary training to use digital platforms?
  • How will parties make sure that there is robust debate and that their members can participate in party processes if these are convened virtually?

Political parties are having to adapt to operating during a pandemic and facing  challenges they had previously not needed to consider. Not being able to hold conferences and meetings in person can compromise a party’s ability to be inclusive in its elections and policy-making processes. In general, for political parties to ensure that party elections and policy-making takes place in a  decentralised and inclusive manner, a bottom-up approach is needed where members drive policy and positions. This becomes more of a challenge when parties cannot hold in-person events. Virtual conferences can stifle debate and the sharing of multiple viewpoints. It could also have the potential to influence policy and leadership outcomes because all participants may not be able to fully participate as they would have in a traditional in-person event.

Decentralised and inclusive policy-making and elections are core components of IPD, allowing distribution of power, participation and representation of party members. When members can fully participate and make their voices heard, power is not only in the hands of political elites, the party becomes more representative and members can participate more meaningfully on policy issues.

We have discussed some of the challenges parties will face in the context of IPD but issues around how virtual spaces are used and by whom are also relevant for the upcoming local government elections later this year, and potentially longer if the pandemic remains.

  • How will parties and their candidates campaign if they cannot hold in-person events?
  • Will campaigning be purely digital and does this mean that it will limit who will be reached and in what form?
  • How will this disadvantage the ability of  certain parties and candidates to deliver their message to potential voters?

The impact of Covid-19 will continue to be felt in 2021. Political parties will need to build on lessons learnt in 2020 and continue to develop ways of ensuring that they remain inclusive for their members. Similarly, they will need to find ways to run their election campaigns in this new context.

This is the second part in a series about intra-party democracy by My Vote Counts

Read the first part here: