There are few countries in the world so completely controlled by only one political party as South Africa. And yet, for all of its presence, how much do we know about the way the African National Congress runs itself?
The ANC is THE organisation to belong to in South Africa. It’s the one body that brings together people of unbelievably different beliefs, views, cultures and creeds. More than any other group, it actually “represents” the country. If you look at the membership of the ANC, you will get a reasonable snapshot of South Africa in 2010. There may not be enough whities, rich or otherwise, in the picture, but it’ll be very close to what the country looks like.
But the real questions are (a) how do you exercise influence within the ANC, and (b) how valuable is that influence. The answers are, (a) it’s complicated, and (b) hugely.
The ANC has obviously changed in character since its creation 98 years ago. But, it is still the same organisation that sent a delegation to the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. It is much bigger now, with a broader membership. It stands a far greater chance of having its voice heard than it did in 1919. But one thing is still the same: for those who want to get ahead, this is the party to join.
It’s not difficult to understand now, how, if you were black during the 1970s and 1980s, the ANC was the ticket to get ahead. This has become an issue in present day South Africa. If you are black, with the brains and the balls to get ahead, you’ve probably been a member of the ANC at some point. And when you need a whole clutch of people to run the organisations that check government’s power, you also want them to be run by people who are black, with brains and balls. Hence the inherent conflict of interest we see.
The basis of this part-liberation movement, part-political party is the branch. (At least it’s supposed to be.) But the ANC is in the process of “revitalising” those at the moment, because the branches aren’t running as well as they should. But, technically speaking, there is a branch literally everywhere in the country. If you go down to the Underberg, a small dorp among small dorps, the first sign you see points to the local ANC branch. In the Eastern Cape, each settlement of literally more than 100 people will have an ANC poster, either a relic from last year’s elections, or announcing some meeting or other. In Sandton, you have to look a little harder, but the branch is there. And yes, its members are a little better off than those in Underberg.
Technically speaking, it’s these branches that run the country. Their members discuss issues, come to a decision, and then forward that decision upwards. It goes to the region, thence to the province, and finally to 54 Sauer Street, Marshalltown, Johannesburg. But throughout that process things change. Personal interests start to become intertwined.
It starts in the provinces. The power of personality starts to trump that of policy. For all its protestations that it is a movement of the people, of all its members, at times the ANC also appears to be a movement for just a handful of people. The tsunami that was the support for President Jacob Zuma last year was about many things, but it wasn’t about policy. And in the provinces people start to build their own power bases. Think of Ace Magashule in the Free State. He has it locked up tight. As a result, when branches have their conversations, they know that anything they decide will have to go through him. Now think of this process happening all over the country, and you can see the scope to grow one’s personal power.
Thanks to its historical secretiveness and cloaked operations, it is often difficult to work out who is really running the ANC. You can’t just look at their positions within the provinces. There’s a complex web of interlocking loyalties, with people making pacts on some issues and opposing each other on others. And sometimes it throws up surprising results. For instance, Angie Motshekga can play a pivotal role in the Gauteng ANC – even though she lost an election for the chairmanship of the party in the same province.
All of this pales against the power wielded by a member of the national executive committee. That’s really the place to be. You get a seat there and you’re at the top table. And it’s far more complex to follow. Because of the system of slates, the process of appointing people is open to manipulation. Zuma did this brilliantly at Polokwane. He told all his people to vote for a certain list of names. That meant he got pretty much who he wanted on the NEC.
When it comes to issues such as Julius Malema’s disciplinary hearing, this web is more complex. People have their own allegiances, their own friends and those to whom they owe favours. As in just about any other political party, the end result is always a hodgepodge rather than clear direction. But within the ANC, the system is breaking down, for several reasons.
Firstly, the NEC is bigger than it was: it now has 80 members, and they take much longer to make a decision than the 60 it used to have. Secondly, the ANC is a much broader church than it ever was. Combine that with the fact Zuma had plenty of people he owed, and you have a recipe for trouble. You have those who want socialism in our lifetime, combined with those “deployed in business”. That translates into Jeremy Cronin and Cyril Ramaphosa in one room – supposedly to agree with each other.
But the biggest problem is that politics is moving faster than it used to. And, slow as it is, the ANC can get left behind. You can also only defer tough decisions for so long. Action against Malema took so long because so many people had to be happy with it. And that meant he caused more damage over time than otherwise. In today’s ANC, divisive issues take much longer to resolve than they should.
But there is a flip-side to this. And that is that so many viewpoints are actually represented on the NEC. And this means that – hopefully – the views of most of the branch members are represented in the end. It’s a good system in principle. Now, if only we could get the evil that comes with the slow and the secretive out of it.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)
Photo: South African ruling party ANC (African National Congress) members applaude their president Jacob Zuma (C) as he receives their nomination during a special session to formally elect the country’s president in Parliament in Cape Town, May 6, 2009. REUTERS/Gianluigi Guercia