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Exactly what does organisational renewal mean for the ANC?

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

It’s frustrating when the ANC comes so close to guessing the correct answer, but then takes a left turn just before it gets there. The party realises it faces a future crisis if it doesn’t “renew”, but then adopts a very narrow definition of renewal, one which doesn’t contemplate the loss of majority rule.

If you find all this talk of organisational renewal in the papers of late confusing, it actually isn’t. The ANC has drafted some discussion documents ahead of the policy conference to happen later this year. One of the discussions has to do with organisational renewal. It could have been called: How to Ensure We Remain Politically Relevant for the Foreseeable Future. Organisational renewal is about survival.
Whenever these discussions come up, there is one area the ruling party seems unhappy to discuss: the possibility that its organisational structure and culture is outdated. I don’t believe the ANC has accepted the fact that it primarily exists as a party of governance today, not a liberation movement. There’s a major difference between the two, and failing to see that tends to have serious repercussions for democracy.

The ANC often says it recognises the need to renew and, if we are to be honest, we must point out that reforms do happen, but not at anything approaching a decent pace. To wit, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said in Cape Town over the weekend:

“The ANC is not dead, only a dead organisation remains static and it doesn’t adapt and adjust.??“If you want the ANC you joined some 40 years ago, you will not find it. You must adapt and adjust ANC to the current conditions. It is an organisation that is living. That is having the capacity to self-correct and cleans itself.”

Throughout the organisational renewal document, the ANC acknowledges – to its credit – that it has major problems which could someday threaten to tear it apart. It bemoans corruption as a major blow. The doors were opened when the loopholes in government procurement programmes weren’t closed, which allowed officials to practise corruption almost unstopped. The organisational renewal document begins to address some of these issues. For example, it proposes that all office bearers be forced to make public their financial interests. This would be very welcome. We’ve seen far too many cases of officials abusing their positions in government to benefit themselves and their close associates via public tenders.

When the Chancellor House–Hitachi Power Africa scandal broke once again in February this year, ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe said in parliament that, ideally, the ANC (and its investment arm) should not be doing business with the government at all.

The bit which intrigues me is where the author of the document sets out in plain terms what it means for the organisation to be the “strategic centre of power”.

In the fifth chapter, the document says (to quote a few points out of many):

The 2007 Strategy and Tactics asserts a particular perspective regarding the ANC:

  • It cannot conduct itself as an ordinary electoral party. It should be guided by a clear value system
  • It should strive to be a party of the future, using political power and harnessing the organisational and intellectual resources of society to attain the vision of a national democratic society
  • It should appreciate the critical importance of political power as an instrument to address the ills of colonialism. It should negotiate and manage the myriad problems of incumbency in a manner that ensures future survival as a principled leader of fundamental change, respected and cherished by the masses for what it represents and how it conducts itself in practice.

It continues: “The concept of ‘strategic centre of power’ goes beyond the political management of cadres deployed to state institutions to incorporate political leadership in all centres of influence and power. In modern democratic societies, power is dispersed through various institutions rather than concentrated in one place. Going forward, the ANC needs to deliberately build its own organisational capacity to give moral, intellectual and political leadership and pursue transformative politics in all centres of power and influence in the state: the economy, civil society, communities, the terrain of the battle of ideas and the international arena.”

“Strategic centre of power” basically means an ANC finger in every pot, with the arm extending from Luthuli House. This is troubling for me for two reasons: the ANC seems unable to contemplate the thought of a South Africa without it, and it lacks an appreciation for the central role of a strong parliament in a healthy democracy.

The ANC simply has to come to terms with the fact that our constitutional democracy envisages it playing on a level playing field with other political parties. Our democracy is designed to have several strategic centres of power, not one. For the ruling party to regard itself as the only party worthy of ruling is perfectly fine – such hubris is to be found among all politicians. But the ANC regards itself as the only centre of power, to which the courts, parliament and civil society must capitulate. That is distressing.

The problem will come when the ANC inevitably loses majority rule. That day is coming. The Soviet Union didn’t last forever. Muammar Gaddafi didn’t last forever. Those lasted for decades through undemocratic means. The ANC should therefore be focusing on empowering its public representatives to be a legitimate centre of power in government, and producing leaders whose intellectual depth surpasses mere narrow party interests. When debating organisational renewal, the ANC should be asking itself: “How do we implement policies and programmes of action in government that will ensure that the progressive philosophies upon which this party was founded survive beyond our rule in government?” But that will not happen as long as the single strategic-centre-of-power ideology refuses to budge.

The ANC believes it has a mandate to act in the way it does because of its majority in Parliament. What happens when that majority goes away? That discussion is wholly – and wrongly – missing from the organisational renewal document. DM

Read More:

  • Anthony Butler: Succession take priority over need to reform in Business Day.
  • Mondli Makhanya: liberate the ANC from the chains of strugglethink in TimesLive.
  • Organisational renewal: building the ANC as a movement for transformation and a strategic centre of power [PDF].

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