Opinionista Philip Van Ryneveld 12 December 2017

The power of the ANC’s provinces could lead to the party’s demise

One of the key factors playing out in the selection of the ANC’s new national leadership is the role of the ANC provincial structures, various of which are being presented as kingmakers. The ANC’s provinces wield greater relative power within the party than the country’s Constitution gives provincial governments within the three sphere system of government. Combining this with the high delegate representation from rural provinces at the ANC’s national conference means that the so-called “premier league” wields exaggerated influence.

During constitutional negotiations in the early 1990’s the ruling National Party sought to establish a federal system of government. It was clear that, with democratic elections, the National Party would not retain power at the centre so, to the extent that they wished to weaken central power, distributing it across provinces made sense. The hope was that they could build alliances in opposition to the African National Congress with the leadership of the largely rural, black homeland governments, who had some vested interests in the status quo. The Inkatha led government of KwaZulu-Natal was the most significant of these formations. Jacob Zuma played a key role in defusing Inkatha antagonism towards the ANC, and eventually winning the support of many of its members.

Key to the opposition to apartheid during the 1980’s were the local civic movements under the banner of the United Democratic Front, which was closely identified with the African National Congress. The civics were also in favour of decentralisation – but at the local level, working in conjunction with strong national government. They were wary about the creation of provinces; and this wariness informed the ANC approach during constitutional negotiations.

The Constitution adopted in 1996 provided for three “spheres” of government. While provinces were, indeed created, their constitutional powers are weaker than in most federal systems. Most importantly, they exercise relatively little power over local governments. For example, unlike in federal systems where grants from the centre flow to provinces, which then distribute them amongst local governments, in South Africa they flow directly from centre to local.

But interestingly, having largely won the constitutional arguments and established a governmental system that limited provincial power over municipalities, the ANC has operated since 1994 through hierarchies that have effectively given provincial ANC formations significant power over branches. This is reflected in many ways, such as the fact that there are two ex-officio representatives for each province on the ANC’s national executive committee, but only in exceptional cases since 1994 has metropolitan regional leadership had a presence on this body. (Contrast this with China, where the leaders of the Communist Party in the big cities have a major presence at the apex of party power.)

In adopting policy or pursuing selection to leadership positions within the organisation the practice has developed whereby support is canvassed province by province. This strengthens the influence of provincial leadership making it difficult for the national body to support positions that may weaken provinces in any way. So, for example, most of the processes towards decentralisation encouraged – or even mandated – by the national constitution have not been realised, such as the Joe Slovo led policy on housing, which sought the decentralisation of provision from provinces to those local governments which had sufficient capacity.

And while the Constitution limits the extent to which political patronage can be wielded in the distribution of grants and subsidies, it does not eliminate it. This results in a dynamic which reinforces itself: the ability of provincial leadership to dispense patronage strengthens its dominance within the province, which it then uses to exert more power at national level, channelling resources to further advance its ability to dispense patronage. Such a dynamic has been increasingly evident during the Zuma period. Given that the state has a more dominant presence, especially through its redistributive role, in poorer and more rural areas where the private economy is weak, ANC provincial strongmen outside the major urban economic centres have been able to wield considerably more power, and considerably more influence over branches.

The graphic shown here compares the share of conference branch delegates, population, and GDP by province. There is a stark contrast between Gauteng and the Western Cape on the one hand, and the rest of the provinces on the other. Gauteng and the Western Cape have a high proportion of GDP to population but a low proportion of conference delegates. For most of the other provinces it is the reverse. Interestingly, KwaZulu-Natal is relatively balanced, perhaps reflecting the fact that it combines the metropolitan areas of eThekwini (Durban) and Msunduzi (Pietermaritzburg) with extensive rural areas.

Source: Constructed from Statistics South Africa figures

In the initial years after 1994 the African National Congress played a truly national role reflecting a balance between urban and rural interests. During the Zuma years, however, that has shifted with the so-called “premier league” representing provincial interests outside of the economic core rising in relative power. As can be seen in the graphic, these provinces, led by Mpumalanga, Free State, and North West, all have a high proportion of ANC delegates in relation to population and a low share of GDP.

The lead up to the ANC’s elective conference has reflected this battle between provincial and branch representation, with leadership in a number of provinces seeking to manipulate the expression of branch preferences. The Ramaphosa campaign has worked hard at branch level to garner support even where the provincial leadership has been dominated by Dlamini Zuma supporters. Gwede Mantashe has played an important role in seeking to ensure greater branch level independence and coherence. This represents something of a shift from previous conferences, driven perhaps by the high stakes that this conference represents for the ANC.

And the stakes are high.

One of the interesting things about the Ramaphosa campaign is the way in which he has been able to establish support in both the urban, economic core as well as the rural areas, and this will be critical to building the kind of consensus needed to resolve the challenges the country now faces. The branch delegates from Gauteng and the Western Cape, which are overwhelmingly supportive of him, together account for only 14.5% of the delegates. However, these provinces account for 35.2% of the country’s population and 47.8% of GDP. At the same time he has garnered strong majorities in Limpopo, Eastern Cape, and Northern Cape.

A win for Dlamini Zuma will represent a victory for the “premier league” faction. But there is a strong likelihood that ANC support in the country’s urban economic core will plummet. It is difficult to see how the ANC can remain a dominant political force with limited presence in the two provinces that together represent nearly half the country’s economy.

It would be a sad irony if the ANC eventually comes to resemble precisely the kind of coalition of provincial interests that the National Party sought to construct in 1994. DM

Philip van Ryneveld has for many years worked on building city government in South Africa, and especially Cape Town, working towards creating more liveable and less resource-hungry cities. As a technical advisor to the African National Congress during constitutional negotiations in the early 1990s, he helped draft the ANC’s key policy document on decentralization; and has subsequently drafted numerous policy-related documents for national and city governments in South Africa and abroad. Between 1997 and 2001 he was Chief Finance Officer of the City of Cape Town and more recently played a key role in the conceptualisation and implementation of Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus rapid transit project. He currently consults to a World Bank team supporting national government in the development of public transport policies. Abroad he has worked in India, Indonesia, Bhutan, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Yemen and Zambia.


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