Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

We are back again at that time of the political cycle when the ANC exhorts its members not to mention the names of the new leaders they hope to see elected at its national conference at the end of the year.

It is a futile exercise, which apart from being consistently and repeatedly ignored, drives lobbying underground and creates a fertile environment for misinformation, smears and fake news. A great example was the front-page news in the Gupta-owned paper The New Age on Tuesday, which claimed that it had got hold of Cyril Ramaphosa’s proposed slate, with all 80 of those he wants on the national executive committee as well as his picks for the top six.

Was this list the real thing or part of the growing phenomenon of fake news? It has been widely dismissed in political circles as the work of those seeking to discredit Ramaphosa and to drive a wedge between him and those who were notably excluded, such as ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.

But how are members of the public and newspaper readers expected to discern this? According to ANC leadership selection protocol, published in what the organisation fondly describes as a seminal document — Through the Eye of the Needle — it is "in bad revolutionary taste" to campaign for oneself. So had Ramaphosa or anyone of his team put the list together, they would never be able to say so. And because they will always deny it, anything at all can be done in their name. This is especially so in the age of social media, where virtually anyone can distribute anything to a wide network of people.

The ANC, though, is adamant that Through the Eye of the Needle provides adequate guidance and the necessary safeguards to elect leadership in a democratic process.

However, the paper – written in 2001 – failed to stem any of the negative and fundamentally undemocratic practices that have come to characterise leadership selection in the ANC. Even back then – 15 years ago — the authors of the paper decried the buying of branches by individuals in order to control the selection of delegates to attend the elective conference. They also warned that election to an ANC leadership position had become an avenue to government jobs, contracts and kickbacks from commercial entities.

Yet despite the assiduous application of Through the Eye of the Needle, these problems have been aggravated rather than alleviated since 2001.

Apart from this very obvious failure, the document itself is muddled and confused. It begins by stating in line with the ANC constitution that branch members are the electoral college for all elective positions. A branch member who is delegated to attend the national conference does so with the mandate of his or her branch. But the branch member can also allow himself or herself to be influenced by other branches in the region and the province and hence change their mind.

Later, at the national conference, the branch delegate votes for all 86 positions on the national executive committee by secret ballot. He or she is "guided by the mandate of their branch, region and province" but is also expected "to exercise his or her own judgment".

What on earth does this mean? The ANC constitution states quite clearly the conference is a conference of branches, not individuals, regions or provinces. While the greater problem is the corruption involved in leadership selection, the whole process is flawed and confused.

Instead of insisting that its revolutionary culture and mythology is helping, the ANC needs to recognise that it is a central part of the problem.

Or perhaps it is just not possible for an ANC leader to go through the eye of a needle.

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