Operation Modernise the ANC: click here to start

By Stephen Grootes 16 January 2012

At the ANC's centenary celebrations last Sunday, President Jacob Zuma, speaking for the ANC's national executive committee, said there was an urgent need to "modernise" the ANC. The party now has over a million members, and the universe in which it operates is changing fast. Some deep-ish thinking is needed. STEPHEN GROOTES takes a shallow stab.

Being a January 8th statement, no details were mentioned, so we know it’s more of a wish list nowadays than a set of hard intentions. But he’s opened Pandora’s box. There are plenty of ways that the ANC could be modernised – some are just fun, and some are plain necessary.

Almost all nasty hacks like me have an unhealthy interest in communication. Whenever you hear the words “ANC” and “modernise” in the same sentence, it’s almost always immediately followed by several paragraphs about the ANC’s communications department, and what needs to be done. And we’ll come to that. But first we need to deal with more important and serious stuff.

Any large organisation has to find a way to manage power. Who has it, how much, what powers do leaders have, what powers do ordinary members have, and then the real tough grey areas in between. Should a provincial ANC leader be allowed to fire a provincial premier (at the moment the answer is no, only the NEC can do that), or can a regional secretary expel someone without going through the province? These are tricky questions. At the moment, power is pretty concentrated; in essence, the NEC pulls the strings.

There are times when a lowly member is able to take on a much more senior member. Think of Vytjie Mentor, then an MP, taking on then chief whip Mbulelo Goniwe after he allegedly sexually harassed her secretary. She won, but only because she’s a fighter and was able to get senior comrades to back her. And Goniwe wasn’t the most popular of blokes. But it was still a victory for democracy, of sorts, within the party.

As the party gets bigger, this is a question the ANC really needs to grapple with. Should some, and which, powers be delegated to lower structures? It’s a big question. You would immediately think that could lead to chaos. You would have provincial leaders shouting at each other publicly about policy, and different provinces following completely different ideas. But it might be worth doing. Firstly, we already have provincial differences: both Gauteng and the Free State want an open debate on leadership, the others do not. And yet, the house has not fallen in. It might also be an idea to allow different provinces to follow different administrative systems, to an extent. Already the Western Cape is becoming almost a laboratory of ideas, because it’s ruled by another party. Think of alcohol and liquor laws; it was the DA that first thought of banning booze sales after 2am. It’s a plan that could soon be followed by other provinces ruled by the ANC.

Critics of such an idea will immediately respond by saying that this could lead to regional mafias developing. Some might say that John Block in the Northern Cape, Cassel Mathale in Limpopo and David Mabuza of Mpumalanga are already running their provinces with no regard to the centre. There’s much merit in that argument. Which is why we must also discuss the power of the ANC’s regions as opposed to the power of the ANC’s provinces. Maybe it’s time to start empowering the regions, perhaps, to an extent, at some cost to the provinces. That could be a way around that problem. It would also bring power, dare I say it, closer to the people.

All of this could, if managed correctly, have another happy benefit. It would make national leadership elections in the ANC less fraught. If the top six have less power than they do now, and the NEC has less power, and if the regions were perhaps more empowered, somehow, ANC elections wouldn’t be these huge, intense, winner-takes-all events that they are currently. There would be less time spent on “succession” and more on actual governance.

And while we’re here, another important issue that needs to be looked at is the timing of regional, provincial and national ANC elections. The ANC is considering a plan to hold national and local elections at the same time. It may happen, it may not. But it really should hold a full national debate in its structures about its own internal elections. Just this year, apart from the ANC’s policy and national conferences, both Mpumalanga and the Free State hold provincial conferences. There are nine provinces and two leagues. National conferences happen every five years, league and provincial elections every three. As a result, elections literally litter the party’s calendar, meaning the cadres are in constant campaign mode. At the same time, it is simply unjustifiable to have such a long gap between the ANC’s national electoral cycle and the Republic’s. The party would never have gone through the tragedy of the Mbeki Recall (and we would have been spared the comedy of Cope) if there wasn’t this 18 month gap between the two. If you are going to have this long period of time with “two centres of power” you are running huge risks of major problems almost each time it happens. It’s time to think again.

And this brings us nicely to the question of communications. The ANC’s communication system is much better than it used to be in Mbeki’s era (yes, really!). Spokesmen by and large respond quickly when they are able. But they can be hampered by the fact that, understandably, the main spokesman has to be a political appointment, someone on the national working committee. This means the person you get is not necessarily a born communicator. Jackson Mthembu is much better than Smuts Ngonyama (whose pre-Polokwane insistence on repeating “There are no divisions in the ANC” became what we remember him by), but there are many times when he needs to consult before commenting. The story moves on by then. And he’s not a media person – he works hard, he returns calls when he can, but he’s not someone who is able to turn a story on its head with one clever quote. Somehow the party needs to work this one out.

At the same time, ANC really needs to get a handle on social media. It has one million members. If just 20% of them have smart phones, you already have the potential to rival Gareth Cliff (223,761 followers on Twitter). And with it the power to move ideas through society, to become a real motive force for thought would really snowball. The ANC’s current practice of simply having someone tweet from the president’s name once or twice a week from some GCIS approved statement is very 2009. They actually have to have someone dedicated to it, someone who can respond to events in real time. You don’t just grab cyberspace, you also grab the news agenda: the first real indication that Julius Malema had received a stiff sentence during his disciplinary came from a Facebook post from his spokesman whose name we simply can’t remember at this moment. This needs to be a priority. And don’t be too scared to give that responsibility to a young person. One of the most important people in Barack Obama’s political life has been a 30-year-old speechwriter, Jon Favreau, who was with him since his mid-twenties. There should be a real debate about taking the social networks plunge here. (And once the ANC is on Twitter and other social networks properly, Mthembu’s burden would be easier to bear.)

The question of modernising the ANC is a big one. There are many different areas that need work. But first they need serious thought. The road to modernisation is a long hard one, fraught with political debates, and possibly very real fights. So we’re not holding our breath. But at least an admission that it’s necessary is a step in the right direction. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: A supporter of the African National Congress attends the final election rally for the ruling party in Johannesburg, April 19, 2009.  REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly


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