A funny thing happens at national ANC conferences: the party's theory of the superiority of bottom-up democracy is proven correct. At the last three such meetings the representatives of ordinary members have saved it from potential disasters brought about by their leaders that included Thabo Mbeki's refusal to relinquish power and a media appeals tribunal suggestion poisoned by a new set of paranoid leaders, to name just two. But while they are a force for good in the aggregate, efforts to harness that ability on a local level still aren't showing results – though with any luck, that is about to change. By PHILLIP DE WET.
In between big national events, it is easy to scoff at the ANC’s insistence that its local branches are the most important bodies in the organisation, with the final say on everything except the minutiae of policy implementation, which they graciously delegate to the leaders they elect. Strange things happen between the time when policy is decided by a national congress, such as the last one at Polokwane, and the point where government programmes are actually implemented. Things that make it clear just how powerful the influence can be of personal views of a leader, even one who by rote declares himself nothing, but the robot-like hands of the party.
Never mind just how mediapathic leadership squabbles are, and how easily they get conflated with policy issues as those with ambition fly kites using policy as proxy.
That is part of the reason the media’s expectations of – and worst fears on what can emerge from – events like the national general council meeting in Durban so often prove inaccurate. Especially that section of the media that gives credence to the lies the ANC Youth League peddles through anonymous sources in its clumsy attempts to sway debate.
But time after time ordinary members come together and, at least in broad policy strokes, restore order. In Polokwane they did so by supporting the Zuma coup and preventing Mbeki’s continued centralisation of power, in Durban they defeated the Youth League’s attempts to secure a future top job for Fikile Mbalula and free Julius Malema from the threat of being kicked out if he shoots off his mouth again.
These are the highly visible and more entertaining outcomes of branch intervention, but plenty more important changes come about in the same way. Rational policy and good tweaks to policy always emerge, even if some of it is crippled by socialist delusions. And even if the whole process is deeply mistrusted by some South Africans, sometimes the same kind of citizen who buys into the “wisdom of crowds” theory behind crowd-sourced online projects like Wikipedia, but that’s a different story.
Jacob Zuma understands this bottom-of-the-pyramid power better than most, and largely plays it to his advantage. He has been accused of abandoning those who helped him sweep to power; the Youth League, Cosatu, the SA Communist Party. But these organisations provided what can be better described as logistical support, in the end it was mobilised branches that elevated him and this week affirmed his power.
Zuma has most definitely not abandoned his branch allies. He is toying with their affections somewhat, with the so-called “Cadre Bill”, a legislative amendment that would prohibit municipal managers from also holding party office. That isn’t exactly a popular plan among local ANC leaders, though the members in the branches run by those leaders seem more ambiguous on the matter.
Aside from such flirtations with danger, though, Zuma is careful to keep his loyalties clear, in so many words. “… the leadership must never betray this faith and loyalty,” he said of branches in his NGC opening speech, amid heaping praise on them for the decision to “save the organisation from something unknown” in the form of Mbeki’s third term. In his closing address five days later the words were different, but the tone identical, with references to “the commitment and dedication of our branches”.
Photo: Zuma made all the right moves in Durban. (Photo: The Daily Maverick)
The common sense prevailing within branches, and their power, and the regular genuflection that highlights their power, makes the deficiencies of local government all the more peculiar. Throughout the country municipal governments are, on average, badly broken, and ANC-controlled councils perform well below that abysmal average. That has been most viscerally illustrated through service-delivery protests, but upcoming local elections will surely put a nice, numerical value to such failings.
Zuma’s Cadre Bill is just one of a range of initiatives seeking to change that, but they all face a fundamental problem: on a branch level, the ANC still isn’t ready to govern.
It is cheap and easy to become an ANC member and have a say in elections all the way to, effectively, the presidential, even if your motives are not mercenary. The kind of fun thing you can do on a lark. In between elections, though apathy invariably sets in. Party and municipal managers run the show unquestioned, and some branch members tell us their meetings end up as either social events, which are fun but futile, or unpleasant ideological battlegrounds, with attendance dwindling until only the radicals and those with nothing better to do show up. The exciting days of meeting in secret locations, with the threat of a police raid at any moment, but the sense of changing the world, that it certainly ain’t.
Rapid growth isn’t helping. The ANC has a very public target of hitting one million card-carrying members by 2012, and it has been recruiting fast. In the last three years it says it has grown by just more than 20%, and it has to increase membership by another 30% in the next two years. That makes it almost impossible to regulate the creation of new branches, or screen members, or achieve the much-vaunted political education of members on which so much money and wordage is being spent.
Branch renewal has its own subset of ANC policy, because “the rebuilding, development and strengthening of branches are critical,” as Zuma declared in his closing speech. It seems more likely, however, that the increased responsibility the party is trying to hand to branches will see them revive all on their own.
The devolution of power to branches gained real momentum at Polokwane after the dangers of over-centralisation of power had been made so clear. It has maintained that momentum due to the weird relationship the ANC has with provinces, helped along by the Democratic Alliance’s control of the Western Cape and the sad state of several other provincial administrations. The party can’t quite make up its mind whether to try to scrap the pseudo-federal powers of provinces, but it sure as hell isn’t going to vest more power in them either.
Which leaves us with ANC policy positions on everything from health to education in which branches are central. On paper, branches are supposed to monitor local clinics and take decisive action if they aren’t functioning properly. Branches are supposed to become deeply involved in schools and snitch on principals who aren’t policing teacher attendance. Branches are supposed to form old-style street committees to tackle crime and even come up with their own job-creation plans for young people. Much of which depends on the ability of branches to hold their councillors to account, in much the same way as ordinary members are supposed to call out national leaders if they aren’t performing.
Why is that elegant theory not working in practice? In the mind of the ANC, as expressed by the NGC, the problem is discipline. That “cancer”, that “alien tendency”, that “lack of revolutionary spirit” is the reason councillors get away with corruption, or incompetence, or bad policy, or even just laziness. Local leaders, party and municipal both, manage to get away with murder by buying votes, using divisive tactics, disrupting meetings, lying and cheating. And that is just the list compiled by the ANC itself.
That is what lies at the root of the yet-again renewed calls for discipline to be restored throughout the party. Are ordinary members upset when Cosatu chief Zwelinzima Vavi badmouths Zuma? Perhaps a little. Do they like Julius Malema’s style of populism? Not really, no. But they’re downright incandescent, flamingly furious, when local councillors refuse to listen to complaints that infrastructure money is being wasted or tenders being mismanaged. All politics may be local, but no politics are as local as when they affect the water to your house, or sanitation at your child’s school, or the odds that your neighbour dies while waiting for an ambulance that doesn’t arrive.
So if the aggregate wisdom of branches also works in isolation, and that wisdom can be brought to bear by a focus on discipline, so the thinking goes, then local communities will find ganging up on problems and councillors in ANC branch meetings a more effective mechanism to get things done than forming a mob to burn tyres in the street while demanding water and houses. The greater the impact of branches, the greater the involvement in branches – and the fact that this virtuous cycle also brings more power to the ANC is, of course, a not entirely unpleasant side effect. DM
Main photo: The Daily Maverick
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas