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‘Through the eye of the Ferris wheel’ – the ANC leadership crisis


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

The ANC has become the Vatican City, a country with sovereign powers within another country. If you run fast enough and get across the line or gate of Luthuli House, you are protected by a different set of rules.

This past weekend saw a number of provincial ANC elective conferences taking place with all sorts of shenanigans at play. Comrades and cadres gathered to not only endorse the national policy prescripts of the 54th National ANC conference held at Nasrec in December but to also elect suitable persons for the coveted Provincial Executive Committees.

When looking at the history of the ANC, one remembers that the word comrade means a person who is willing to die for you in the trenches of struggle and for whom you are equally prepared to die.

Cadre, on the other hand, refers to a person specifically recruited and trained to do a specific job.

Rarely do you find both these qualities in one person. Govan Mbeki said that to organise means to assist people in equipping themselves to solve their own problems and/or challenges. That, he said, is what it means to organise – not you solving the problems on behalf of the people but equipping them to solve their own problems.

In other words, you identify suitable people in your community that show exceptional abilities and compassion towards the people. Actively recruit that person into the ANC, train the person to execute specific tasks and then it is up to that trained cadre to work and to organise communities, assisting them, organising them to find their own solutions to their respective problems in society. Over time, they will become your comrade in the struggle towards realising a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.

The ANC has a document on leadership outlining the features and elements required for such leaders to be elected in the ANC. It is aptly named Through the Eye of the Needle. But a little more of this a bit later.

At the Gauteng elective conference this past weekend, we saw roughly 700 nominations for the 30 additional members’ positions. Only 10% or so declined nomination, which left roughly 595 or so names on the ballot paper. A nine-page ballot paper.

There is no eye of the needle, instead it’s the eye of the Ferris wheel because it seems any Dick, Tom and Bongani seems to think they are eligible to be a leader. They have no confidence in others and hence the principle of none but ourselves can serve ourselves better applies. Half of the conference nominated each other to occupy leadership positions.

For starters, the top five positions seem now to be negotiated, to hell with the will of the people, or branches I should say. Delegates are sent by their respective branches to nominate and elect certain comrades but if it boils down to negotiations between the key protagonists, then what does that say about democracy? They sit in dark smoke-filled rooms and divvy up the spoils among themselves, all in the name of unity!

This is also the reason why we do not see any gender balance in the equation because women must also demonstrate that they have the numbers and requisite voters so as to be taken seriously at the table. The attitude is: We men will decide how best to accommodate you women in the leadership of the movement. No wonder we have such disdain towards women and girl children within our broader society.

Another matter is the individuals that put themselves forward regardless of their respective standing in their communities and society at large. Women abusers are elected regardless of a continuous pattern of gender-based violence. Others are elected even when it has been found that in their public office responsibilities they have committed serious errors in judgement with devastating consequences that have led to deaths. And still others say “yes I am available” knowing full well that they are facing allegations and in some instances, charges, for corruption and illicit activities with financial institutions and others.

They have to accept the nominations because they require the protection that the organisation offers to them once prosecutions come knocking on their doors. They can hide in Parliament and in leadership positions of the governing party. In effect, the ANC has become the Vatican City, a country with sovereign powers within another country. If you run fast enough and get across the line or gate of Luthuli House, you are protected by a different set of rules it seems.

When all is said and done, in the Limpopo, KZN and the Gauteng elections, it’s rather difficult to observe the non racial principle. Not a white, coloured or Indian member was elected. How tragic. I guess the Africanisation of the party continues even with the change of guard post-Nasrec.

The Organisational Report to the 51st National Conference held in Stellenbosch in 2002 indicated that some of the tendencies warned against in Mafikeng in 1997 had become part of a more generalised trend. Organisational positions were increasingly seen as stepping-stones to government; divisive leadership battles over access to resources and patronage had become the norm; and allegations about corruption and business interests of leadership, deployed cadres and members abounded.

In a number of provinces and in some more than once, the NEC intervened when divisions and factionalism paralysed governance in these provinces, dissolving Provincial Executive Committees and establishing interim leadership to organise provincial conferences to elect new leadership.

In some provinces, these interventions have helped. But in general, lasting solutions also depended on the general state of the organisation and culture of the movement as a national unitary organisation. To make matters worse, “lawfare” has become the norm in settling disputes and leadership battles through our courts, creating an unnecessary burden for our justices and the court roll.

Provincial Chair David Makhura recently chanted at the Greater Johannesburg Regional Conference: “We are in Conference, not in Court”, clearly congratulating conference for demonstrating some form of unity by virtue of not fighting battles in court.

The Stellenbosch Conference in 2002, in the context of weak branch structures and even weaker cadre development programmes, also raised concerns about members and branches being used as ‘voting cattle’ in leadership battles. The tendency to have recruitment and active structures mainly for the purposes of elective conferences, in the absence of consistent programmes to organise and mobilise the local communities, continues unabated too. Is it time for Lenin’s doctrine of “better fewer, but better”? Instead of a broad church and allowing anyone entry to membership of the organisation, recruitment should be much more targeted and in keeping with the prescripts of the leadership document criteria.

This more generally raised the concern that these tendencies contribute to the subversion of organisational culture, evident in such actions as the abuse of the ANC membership system: gate-keeping, ghost members, commercialisation of membership and other fraudulent practices.

It also raised concerns about the issue of factionalism – of elected leadership seen and operating as a faction; leadership at the highest level engaging in factional activity; decisions taken outside of organisational structures and of deployment based on factions.

Subversion of organisational culture – the emergence of a shadow culture

The Polokwane 2007 ANC Elective Conference extended and deepened this shadow culture as far as I am concerned.

Why despite the adoption and reaffirmation of Through the Eye of the Needle have the ANC failed to curb the insidious culture that has developed around their leadership contests?

It sought to draw on the historic traditions of the movement, reintroducing the primary role of the ANC as an agent for change, its character as a revolutionary movement, the centrality of the branch in communities and the role of ANC cadres. Alas!

How far from these ideals they have strayed. A Gordian knot if ever there was one. DM


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