The crumbling foundation of the ANC
Ostensibly, the party’s strength lies in its branches. But regional and provincial leaders have always intervened, and the party has been powerless to stop the erosion of internal democracy
Mangaung, December 2012: the constitutional court delivers a body blow to the ANC’s national conference by nullifying the Free State provincial conference held six months earlier.
Two days later the ANC conference begins; it ultimately elects President Jacob Zuma to lead the party for a second term.
At the time, the party was in uncharted territory, allegations of vote-and membership-rigging to secure a factional outcome had dogged the run-up to the conference, and the court judgment provided the smoking gun. That judgment proved that internal democracy in the ANC, which it counted as a critical factor distinguishing it from political parties locally and abroad, was in dire straits.
Fast-forward to 2017, and the situation has not improved.
On the contrary — it has deteriorated. At least three provinces — including its largest, KwaZulu Natal — are in the midst of court battles which have the potential to alter the outcome of the December gathering.
Between 2012 and October 2017, the ANC held a national general council (NGC) where it took a decision it believed would breathe life into its increasingly dormant internal democracy.
The NGC proclaimed: "Branches must vote according to their branch mandate at elective conferences and consolidation of preferences at regional or provincial level should be outlawed."
This was needed to undercut the damaging intervention by powerful provincial and regional leaders in determining who branches nominate as leaders.
In the past, it was up to provincial leaders to consolidate nominations — which opened the process to abuse.
This time, says party spokesman Zizi Kodwa, the nominations will come directly from the branches. They will be brought to provincial general councils in sealed boxes, opened in the presence of election agents and consolidated.
The key difference is that provincial leaders will not be permitted to tamper with the branch nominations.
Branches will nominate one person for each of the top six positions. To obtain a nomination a candidate has to receive 50% plus one of the votes. The branch nominations are placed in a sealed envelope and sent to the provincial office for safe-keeping, according to the process outlined by the party on its website. At provincial general councils, the nominations will be opened by the provincial secretary in the presence of an electoral officer and read out. The nominee with the highest votes will be confirmed as the candidate put forward by the province.
The ANC touts branches as the basic unit of the organisation, hence their importance in the leadership election process.
Despite the change in processes in the run-up to the national conference and the attempt to remove regional strongmen in determining the outcome of the conference, the provinces challenging the party in court are still targeting these power brokers.
In KwaZulu Natal, those aligned to former chairman Senzo Mchunu — who is in the camp of deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa — are seeking to ensure that the leadership declared illegal by the high court last month under Sihle Zikalala — who is aligned to Zuma and the campaign of his preferred successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma — are not in the driver’s seat during the branch nomination process.
Similarly, in the Free State, there are attempts to remove Zuma ally Ace Magashule through the courts in the run-up to the national conference.
This is because despite the new approach, powerful provincial leaders continue to hold sway over the choices their branches make. Figures released by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe provide an indication of the number of delegates each province brings to the conference. According to the figures, Mpumalanga is now the second-largest province by numbers and will send the second-largest delegation.
Its chairman, David Mabuza, has emerged as a kingmaker and is punting a "unity ticket", but Ramaphosa backers in his province have reportedly disputed the numbers he is touted to bring to the gathering.
What various secretariat reports have shown is that elections can be rigged even if branches are nominating leaders directly.
Allegations of bogus or ghost members, revival of dysfunctional branches, manipulation of the voters’ roll and rigging of the membership system can barely be addressed by simply removing provincial leaders during the nomination process.
Mantashe provided evidence of this in his report to the Mangaung conference: "The most serious problem is that in the majority of branches there is little or no political life. Branches are revived when they are heading for conferences and elections. Basically our branches are driven by the need to either nominate delegates or candidates for local government elections in the main."
A key article in the academic journal Transformation: Critical Perspectives on Southern Africa, edited by Anthony Butler and Roger Southall, uses a case study to illustrate the problems at branch level. The article by Musawenkosi Malabela uses the Manzini branch in the Mbombela municipality in Mpumalanga as a case study and describes manipulation of voting, suppression of internal democracy, the activities of factions and camps and dirty lobbying at branch level.
It is clear that the solution to the ANC’s internal democracy crisis lies in addressing the problems at branch level. This has not happened.
The outcome therefore may be opened to legal challenge, due to the large number of court challenges it faces and to its failure to clean up its branches ahead of the gathering.