There was a time when identifying yourself as a “card-carrying member of the ANC” held significant meaning. The most obvious, of course, was a proud loyalty to Africa’s oldest liberation movement and also that one subscribed to and would contribute to the ideals and goals of the organisation.
The ANC’s current legend and the ruling fiction is that it is the branches that run the country and the majority party. It is these ordinary paid-up members who, we are led to believe, debate issues, policy and direction and move these upwards from the “grassroots” through the provinces and on to the leadership echelons.
And in provinces, where power bases are built and cemented, the role of the chairperson has come to play a pivotal role in the flow of membership, branch composition, money and loyalty, much more so than policy, ideals and vision. It is here where the politics of the trough come into play as patronage networks grow and spread.
It was at the ANC’s Mangaung conference of 2012 that this “grassroots” support began to look more like astroturfing — artificially engineered numbers — clearly in service to slates and factions, particularly that of Jacob Zuma and his various provincial allies, including Ace Magashule and then David Mabuza.
Between 2010 and 2012 in KwaZulu-Natal alone — and this in the wake of political assassinations — membership rose from 192,618 to 331,820, in the Free State from 41,627 to 121,074 and Mpumalanga from 46,405 to 132,729.
Three years later, in 2015, at the ANC’s National General Council in Midrand, Jacob Zuma struggled to decipher plunging ANC membership figures, which stood at 769,870, after a drop of 450,187 members. It was then that the party admitted to deep corruption and “pollution” of ANC branches.
Then secretary-general Gwede Mantashe remarked that the party was at risk of “being sold to the highest bidder”.
Unpacking the R400-million the CR17 campaign spent prior to the Nascrec Elective Conference in 2017, an official revealed to Daily Maverick that R70-million had to be spent on membership fees as an up-to-date membership card “is like gold”.
This because it could be transformed into “currency for grassroots members” who would be present at branches, districts, regional meetings and then provincial conferences to elect the delegates who eventually go to an elective conference to elect a leader.
In some instances, said the official, fees had been outstanding for up to five years, which points to a severe breakdown in the organisational capacity of the ANC. Especially since annual membership is a mere R20.
Members, branches and leadership across the country had other things on their minds — vicious infighting, gatekeeping and the maintenance of corrupt patronage networks and slates.
Today, it seems ANC members couldn’t care less about renewing their membership and will not get off their butts to campaign for the party unless they are paid to do so. And if someone else comes along with a larger incentive, loyalties are easily shifted.
So far has the spirit of the ANC fallen in the democratic era.
Being a card-carrying member of the ANC in the 1950s when the movement became a mass organisation, as ANC veteran Raymond Suttner has written, demanded commitment, grit and discipline.
This was in preparation for the Defiance Campaign of 1952 as well as the Congress of the People Campaign when ANC members crossed the country collecting demands from ordinary South Africans, which were incorporated ultimately in the Freedom Charter.
By 1960, when the ANC was banned, it had a membership of about 50,000. In the 1950s it reached 100,000.
Daily Maverick columnist Omry Makgoale, who describes himself as a “rank and file member of the ANC”, has called for ANC members to be able to directly elect leaders. A “One-member-one-vote” policy is the only way, he says, to form a direct link between ANC leaders and members.
He said that since the ANC had been banned in the 1960s, “relations between rank and file and leadership have not been ideal”.
Writing for City Press in January 2019, Makgoale noted that Dr WB Rubusana, as a founding member of the ANC in 1912, had understood the significance of “relations between voters and the Members of Parliament who they choose to represent them”.
The party, he added, had, since 1994 “relegated this relationship to the bottom of their priorities”.
While the party had always been run by and administered by a black elite which could afford to attend elective conferences, the link to rank-and-file party members had been through these delegates, upon whose integrity members relied.
The banning of the ANC in 1960 led to the organisation radically changing how it operated. Where once it had organised openly, it now had to do so in secret.
This was done also to minimise infiltration by apartheid forces, but gradually, particularly in ANC camps in exile, resulted in a leadership imposed on members. This led in 1975 to a revolt by the Gang of Eight, who were later expelled.
“Generally there was no direct link between the ANC leadership and rank and file except through regular visits by Mzandile Piliso, Joe Modise, Andrew Masondo and Moses Mabhida to the camps,” wrote Makgoale. Later, in 1967, Chris Hani and six others had issued a memorandum which demanded a conference to discuss leadership issues.
Ordinary members of the ANC, notes Makgoale, “have not elected leaders since the 1958 conference which elected Chief Albert Luthuli as president, OR Tambo as deputy president and Duma Nokwe as secretary-general”.
“Sixty years later, ANC leaders have not been used to accounting to rank and file with most having been elected since 1990 through the format of the branch elective conferences, with enormous scope up to today for corrupted and captured branch delegates.”
The lack of accountability of ANC leaders to members in exile, noted Mokgoale, “has been imported to the lack of accountability of MPs to the voters of South Africa.”
The ANC is well aware of its corroded heart, where greed and position trump ideology and vision.
In 2018 the party unveiled a new membership system which is aimed at renewing party membership online, ensuring that ANC members receive their membership cards on time and verifying attendance at branch general meetings.
It is no small irony that it was ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule who announced at the time that “this is a key measure to prevent gatekeeping” and that “the new membership management system is a central pillar of the ANC programme to modernise its key processes”.
Writing in 2015, Suttner said membership of the ANC should be there “to contribute in various ways towards achieving the goals of the organisation”.
“Certainly evidence shows that objectives unrelated to the ANC’s supposed political vision might be achieved through membership or holding office within the ANC.”
Joining the ANC, noted Suttner, had become “depoliticised insofar as there is no systematic process of induction of members into the policies and principles of the organisation”.
“Now there is very limited political discussion beyond who should be elected to what position. This has meant, with the vast expansion of membership, that it is unlikely that many new members are well versed in ANC political principles.”
So much so that the party itself had to cough up R70-million to pay fees for members who themselves could not be bothered.
There is much renewal do be done. DM