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Democracy within parties crucial for a healthy political system, says My Vote Counts researcher

Democracy within parties crucial for a healthy political system, says My Vote Counts researcher
From left: Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood. | Joel Bregman, My Vote Counts senior researcher. | Political analyst, broadcaster, producer and entrepreneur Khanyi Magubane. (Photos: Joyrene Kramer / Supplied)

One of the interventions needed to deepen democracy is intra-party democracy, says Joel Bregman, a senior researcher at My Vote Counts.

The ANC has taken revolutionary measures to strengthen its internal processes as a way to rebuild public trust, according to Joel Bregman, a senior researcher at My Vote Counts. 

Bregman spoke as a member of a Maverick Citizen webinar panel on intra-party democracy (IPD) in the ANC in light of the upcoming electoral conference. The discussion, on Tuesday, was chaired by Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood. Khanyi Magubane, an independent political analyst, joined the discussion. 

My Vote Counts, an advocacy organisation that focuses on deepening accountability and transparency within South African political parties, recently released a report that looks at intra-party democracy in the ANC.

Intra-party democracy is a topic within political theory that examines the way in which a party manages its internal affairs and processes, and whether these are democratic,” said Bregman.  

An opportune time

Bregman notes that while the intra-party democracy measures implemented by the ruling party are a result of its attempt to rebuild itself, there are still benefits.

“The greater level of democracy within a party especially within a governing party and the main opposition parties contributes to and influences the entire political system, the way it functions and its culture,” said Bregman.

The My Vote Counts report found that recent measures taken by the ANC, such as the Renewal Commission, Electoral Committee, step-aside policy and discussions around lifestyle audits, were all steps in the right direction.

“On paper, all of these measures are quite positive and they have been implemented in a short space of time,” Bregman explained.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Your Vote Counts: Anti-corruption, the Constitution and the case for intra-party democracy  

Intra-party democracy in practice

While intra-party democracy systems are positive on paper, it needed to be asked how effective these systems were in practice, said Magubane. 

“We have seen the ANC being in the spotlight because of some of their intra-party democracy systems which have failed them as a political party,” she said.  

Magubane noted that intra-party democracy is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. 

“If you just take a snapshot of ANC, DA and EFF, they are all run very differently.”

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The DA uses a federal system in which the likes of John Steenhuisen and Mmusi Maimane are not as powerful as we think they are, while in the ANC, the president is the most powerful individual, she explained.

Intra-party democracy systems should be measured or gauged against the constitution of the political party itself, she said.

“The constitution of the political party will determine how those IPDs are carried out, and so the constitution of the party itself needs to be examined to see if it is democratic — is it working in favour of its members, is it a working document, or is it set in stone?”

New legislation necessary?

There was very little in South Africa’s Constitution and laws that regulated the inner workings of its parties, said Bregman.

“The extent to which a party needs to be democratic is largely left to their own choices to implement this, which is a problem.”

However, he said, for intra-party democracy to have the desired outcome, it is best not to force it on to parties — it should instead be a natural process.

“We are not calling for a new law, we want to work with parties and lobby so that parties start internalising and seeing the positive potential and benefits for themselves,” he said.

Persisting gender inequality within political parties

Gender inequality should be balanced by intra-party democracy, said Magubane.

Although the ANC does make an effort when it comes to gender representation, “This is one of the areas where I have my biggest criticism of them — there has been no improvement. It is a huge indictment of their own attempt to balance the scales of gender inequality. It also seems like the women within the ANC don’t support women candidates in terms of how they vote.”

Bregman echoed similar concerns and noted that other than the late Jessie Duarte, no woman had served more than one term in the ANC’s top six.

Leaders or laggards?

Heywood asked where South Africa stood in comparison with other countries on intra-party democracy.

Magubane said political ideologies affected how intra-party democracy was implemented within a political party.

party democracy

The greatest weapon civil society has is their vote, and voter apathy is the greatest threat to democracy. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

“You can look at the US and how IPD is implemented by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.”

A country often lauded for its intra-party democracy is Germany, said Bregman. Following World War 2, the country made a concerted effort to create laws on democracy within political parties.

“South Africa has no specific [intra-party democracy] laws, which does not do us any favours and does not position us as a leader,” said Bregman.

Light at the end of the tunnel? 

Bregman considers the systems of intra-party democracy implemented by the ANC as revolutionary because much has happened in a short space of time. He noted that it was unlikely that the party would have instituted so many of these far-reaching measures had it not found itself in its present position.

“We do have to give them credit that they have done it and we have to use it as an opportunity to push for more.”

The long-term impact of these systems and measures cannot be established yet. “I think it is too early to tell what the long-term impact will be, but there are some positive signs,” said Bregman.

Focusing on the build-up to the ANC’s electoral conference and the conference itself, Bregman believes some of the measures instituted by the ruling party have deepened the legitimacy of the process.

“After CR17 and allegations of Ramaphosa’s camp managing to raise a billion rand, the ANC has finally put in place those measures that you have to disclose your internal campaign finances — which is a really important procedure,” he said. The procedure tries to level the playing field so that individuals with massive war chests cannot outspend their opponents, he explained.

Although it remains uncertain to what extent this is actually taking place, a formal attempt at ending slate politics was also a positive, he said. The step-aside rule being firmly in place was beneficial and would have an actual impact, he said.

Part of what will be presented at the electoral conference is a 10-year roadmap for the ANC. “We expect a number of other influential discussions to happen around lifestyle audits and reverting of membership — so the proof will be in the pudding.”

Civil society holds the power

Magubane and Bregman both stressed the importance of voting. 

“The greatest weapon that civil society has over political parties is their vote, and voter apathy is the greatest threat to our democracy,” said Magubane. DM/MC


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