MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

Your Vote Counts: Anti-corruption, the Constitution and the case for intraparty democracy

By Joel Bregman 22 July 2021

Former president Jacob Zuma and President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Leila Dougan / Elmond Jiyane, GCIS)

There is a failure within the governing party — over a period of many years — to uphold and promote the democratic culture and values enshrined in our Constitution and to hold its own accountable.

Joel Bregman

 

Joel Bregman is the Senior Researcher at My Vote Counts. His focus area is intraparty democracy —  working to understand the extent to which political parties institute democratic practices internally and why this is important for South Africa’s democracy and governance. He previously worked at the Social Justice Coalition from 2010 until 2016 and worked briefly for #UniteBehind. Bregman received a Master’s in Historical Studies from the University of Cape Town and studied history, politics and film in his undergrad.

The news cycle of the past few weeks — before the unrest — was dominated by the legal wrangling of former president Jacob Zuma and his efforts to keep himself out of prison. There have been countless analyses about how our constitutional democracy was tested and stood up to these challenges and that this was indeed a victory for the rule of law. 

Soon after Zuma’s incarceration, just before midnight on 7 July, social unrest swept the country. We witnessed devastating scenes and tangible illustrations of how severe desperation, poverty and deep inequality, made worse by the miseries brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, have pushed people to the brink. 

More than 300 people have died.

This article does not seek to unpack the deep-rooted causes that precipitated these more recent events or allocate blame. This is a complex situation deeply rooted in our history that cannot be labelled in simplistic ways and there are many outstanding, nuanced reflections circulating that do an excellent job of providing context.  

While there are certainly people who took advantage of a precarious situation to enrich themselves and allegations are emerging that part of the violence may have been orchestrated, there is equally no doubt that many people categorised as looters were simply finding ways to support themselves and their families during a time of deep financial hardship and struggle. There is no doubt that part of the reason there are such high levels of suffering is related to corrupt and ineffective government. 

We should not forget that those responsible for the looting of our country through the State Capture project wore suits and occupied positions of power in government and business. They did not need to take food and goods from malls but managed to devastate South Africa while sitting in fancy boardrooms making multi-million rand deals. 

But back to Zuma’s efforts (and those of some of his powerful allies and supporters, think of Ace Magashule and Andile Lungisa), to undermine the rule of law and cast doubt on the independence and quality of the judiciary and other legal processes like the Zondo Commission. Their actions reflect a failure within the governing party — over a period of many years — to uphold and promote the democratic culture and values enshrined in our Constitution and to hold its own accountable.  

The years of looting and State Capture (that continue to occur today, albeit in somewhat different guises) led to the whittling away of democratic ideals and principles over time. This resulted in a governing party that was often more concerned with its own survival than doing what was right or being accountable to the country and its people. Zuma was the fiercest proponent of this approach, especially when the true extent of the pillaging began to become evident. 

Now this is not to say that the ANC is more or less democratic in comparison to other political parties. Nor is it meant to cast aspersions on individuals within the party and there have been and still are many honourable elected leaders who work tirelessly to fulfil their mandate towards a better life for all people in South Africa. But it is undeniable that the years of State Capture, and of protecting and closing ranks to protect leaders and the party, meant that the ANC’s commitment to upholding democracy was not always at the forefront of its priorities. 

This is not unique to the ANC. History is littered with incumbent political parties turning a blind eye to the actions of their leaders to ensure power is maintained.  

In many ways, our country’s recent political past can be considered as a subversion of the public good in favour of the interests of a corrupt, narrow elite. The failure to condemn or take steps to put an end to such actions within the governing party, contributed to the situation and context in which its former leader felt that a brazen attempt to undermine the rule of law was a calculated and justifiable position to adopt. 

My Vote Counts’ research on Intraparty Democracy 

In 2019 My Vote Counts began conducting research into Intraparty Democracy (IPD) theory and how South Africa’s political parties were instituting IPD. We sent questionnaires to all parties represented in the National Assembly at the time. None of the parties replied to us – perhaps a reflection of the often-secretive nature of internal party dynamics. We decided to conduct our own research on the four largest parties – the ANC, DA, EFF and IFP. 

More recently, after we discussed our IPD work in greater detail with parties, a number have been more open to having discussions with us. Since late last year, we have been able to interview representatives from seven parties represented in the National Assembly and continue to try and speak to the others. We will be releasing our findings later this year.

The intentions of our IPD work are to raise public awareness around this principle and to illustrate why it should be a key priority for all political parties — for democracy and governance in general, but also for parties’ own performance and ability to win and maintain power. 

Political parties are the lifeblood of our democracy and the key vehicles through which people can participate and exercise their political rights. It is therefore essential – if the desired outcome is a political system that truly seeks to progressively realise the vision of the Constitution – that parties adhere to a basic set of foundational principles. 

Intraparty democracy can be defined as the extent to which a political party institutes and follows certain democratic principles in its internal operations. These include: 

  • Its members being able to have power and a real voice in party decision-making;
  • Fair processes for the election of leaders;
  • Transparent and equal disciplinary processes; and
  • Representation in the party along age, gender, and other demographic lines.

More generally, it speaks to how a party values democratic principles and ensures its practices and political culture align to democratic ideals, regardless of the specific situation or which party member it may involve.

There are some political theorists and political players who consider IPD in a negative light and as being incongruent with the needs of a party to have strong decisive leadership. However, proponents of IPD see it as crucial to fostering good governance and democratic culture not only within a particular political party but within government itself. The rationale behind this thinking is that when a political party adheres to and promotes democratic values internally, if that party comes into power, it is more likely to mirror these practices when leading or forming part of a government. 

If the ANC took a stronger commitment to promoting the values of the rule of law and the Constitution and took tougher action against members who contravene these principles, it is far less likely that we would not have found ourselves in a situation where a former president of the country felt it acceptable to test our democracy in the manner he did. One can also argue that the governing party’s decline in support is directly linked to this failure. DM/MC

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