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Prioritising leadership tussles over policy imperatives

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Photo: ANC Gauteng Facebook

By Professor Dirk Kotze

At the latest ANC provincial conference in Gauteng, the delegates decided to convene a special provincial general council meeting to discuss the outstanding policy matters of the first conference.

The reason is that the leadership elections took most of the time, and policy matters could not be discussed. This is not an exception but almost the rule with ANC conferences at the moment. The same happened at the provincial conferences in Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape.

A notable exception was the recent Limpopo conference. Even the ANC’s national conference in 2017 did not leave enough time for intensive policy discussions. Why is this happening? The short answer is that too much of the conferences’ time is absorbed by debates on the credentials report and the election of party leaders. But this has not always been the case.

Contestation for the Top Six positions for many years before 2007 did not reach the conference stage. Nomination processes were designed to identify consensus candidates. Contestation was therefore at the nomination stage between possible candidates.

That process was centralised and controlled by the top leaders. Progression happened within the Top Six from one position to the next. Jacob Zuma is a good example of this, also Gwede Mantashe.

The result, in most instances, was uncontested elections. But a few exceptions can also be mentioned. At the 1991 national conference, Cyril Ramaphosa stood against then-incumbent Alfred Nzo for the position of secretary-general. Moreover, before the 1997 national conference, contenders against Zuma for the position of deputy president were made to understand that it was not the right thing to do. The first highly contested conference, however, was at Polokwane in 2007.

Two “slates” or nomination lists of candidates of the Zuma and Thabo Mbeki camps were presented. Intensive campaigning for the Top Six positions and the members of the national executive committee (NEC) took much of the time. The Zuma supporters presented it as more than a leadership election – for them, it was a contest about ideology in the ANC:

Mbeki’s neo-liberal economics versus Zuma’s leftist populism. This polarisation never healed in the years that followed. No reconciliation, no steps were taken towards the unification of the two groups, and it was the beginning of factionalism in the ANC. The 2007 results set the scene for a winner-takes-all culture in the ANC. With this new culture, nominations and elections became the most important events in the party. They determine who are in the centre and the periphery in the ANC. These dynamics encouraged formation of patronage networks and the use of money and other rewards in elections.

The winners of elections were enabled to reward their supporters by appointments, contracts or support in other elections. When politics is the most effective route to gain entry into the business environment or when politics becomes a long-term career, election into these positions is not about public service or about accepting the possibility of losing the election but about ensuring economic survival and personal prosperity. It is also not about elections with unpredictable outcomes but about the entrenching of power and positions.

Contestation of credentials at the start of conferences are influenced by these developments. The ANC’s constitution established a hierarchy of institutions, from the local branches, regions and provinces to the national level. Branches are the foundation of the ANC’s organisation and, therefore, 90% of all the delegates at a national conference must be branch delegates. The same principle also applies to regional and provincial conferences.

Branch delegates are, therefore, particularly important. Manipulation of branches became the order of the day. Bogus branches are established, gatekeeping is used to prevent some persons from becoming branch members, or “members of members” (that is, non-ANC members who are supporting ANC branch members) are attending conferences. The intention of these practices is to bolster support for one slate against the opposing candidates.

For branches to be constitutionally compliant, they must conduct general meetings to elect their leaders and conference delegates.

These processes must be audited to verify their authenticity. Many branches are not audited but still send their delegates to conferences. Other “delegates” of non-existent branches also arrive at conferences. A conference’s credentials’ report is the control mechanism to authorise the conference’s composition of delegates. If any of the constitutional provisions were not complied with, the status of the branches or delegates could be challenged.

This process and challenges to eliminate opponents or their supporters often consume the first part of a conference because, at this point, the balance of power at the conference between the contending groups or factions is determined. Disputes related to the credentials are referred to the ANC’s dispute resolution committees at national and provincial levels. The ideal is that they must be resolved before the conference, but it is not always successful. NEC representatives are also deployed to provinces, and they are also tasked to assist with the disputes.

The recent Ekurhuleni regional conference is a good example of unresolved disputes. As a consequence, 19 votes from disputed delegates were indefinitely quarantined until the dispute about credentials could be resolved. The ANC also introduced an online membership system to counter the practices of manipulating party membership. It has improved the situation, but the latest series of conference problems indicated that they are not yet eliminated.

Under these conditions, when does the ANC have an opportunity to talk about policies? As a rule, six months before the national conference, the national policy conference is convened. Policy discussion documents are prepared by the NEC sub-committees, and they inform discussions in the conference’s commissions and their draft resolutions. As a result, it constitutes a stage of policy preparation. Almost halfway between national conferences, a national general council conference should be convened. It serves as a moment of policy evaluation, especially of the policy resolutions adopted at the previous national conference.

Both conferences are not involved in election matters and can therefore concentrate on policy considerations. The national conference is the only forum where formal ANC policies can be adopted.

It is, unfortunately, also the main elective conference, and elections are, therefore, competing with policy matters for conference time.

Under pressure, resolutions are adopted, and the result is not always satisfactory. Public policy processes are not simple. ANC conference policy decisions, in theory, should inform government policy-making.

The interaction between them is not one-dimensional, and often public policy is more the product of government processes than of the ANC’s.

When the ANC refers to renewal, its conduct at conferences and internal elections can be a good demonstration of it. So far, the tide has not yet turned in this respect.

Kotze is from the Department of Political Sciences at Unisa.