Is the ANC becoming an ordinary political party?

Douglas Gibson says the liberation movement could learn a thing or two from the DA

Is the ANC becoming an ordinary political party?  This might seem an odd question, except that in the South African context, it is entirely relevant.

For decades, the ANC has referred to itself as a ‘liberation movement.’  Often as a ‘glorious movement.’  Certainly, in the generation since it came to power, the ANC has always represented itself as more than a political party: it has seen itself as the sole legitimate representative of the South African nation and the standard bearer of the national democratic revolution (whatever that might be after twenty-three years in government).  Nothing was more important than being a loyal and disciplined ‘cadre’ and the unity of the movement was paramount.

Changes started a decade and more ago. After Polokwane, with its bitterly fought election between Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki, the faction-forming and the subsequent recall of Mbeki as president, things were never going to be the same again. Change has speeded up and the faction-forming and the inevitable slate politics have become the norm in the government.

Ours must be the most disunited government anywhere in the world. Despite the doctrine of cabinet co-responsibility, ministers and their deputies say what they like about each other. A senior minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, is able to say, with reference to the Zuma rape charge of ten years ago that she believes that Khwezi, the woman Zuma was found not guilty of raping, did indeed believe she had been raped. 

Naledi Pandor, Cyril Ramaphosa’s choice as deputy president, talking about perceptions of corruption, said some cabinet colleagues live beyond their means and some must be getting money from ‘elsewhere.’  Kebby Maphatsoe, the former army chef who emerged as the president of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MKMVA) and deputy minister of defence and veteran’s affairs, openly backs Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma against his cabinet colleague, the deputy president of the ANC, and he has publicly attacked Ramaphosa for pursuing factions. There are many more examples.

This disunity does not surprise, given the certain knowledge that several cabinet members no longer serve the public as their first priority, but have allowed themselves to become the lackeys and perhaps even the appointees of President Zuma’s friends, the Guptas.  When corruption spreads its tentacles as far as it has among the loyal cadres deployed to positions of authority in national, provincial and local government and into all of the state-owned entities, it is not surprising that the collegiality and the comradeship that famously existed has died.

The evolution of the ANC has been most marked in the current leadership election.  In the ANC, it was simply not done to express any ambition to serve in a particular office or position. It was totally frowned on and the fiction was maintained that loyal cadres would accept whatever deployment the ANC decided on for them: this while campaigning furiously underground. 

Things are changing, most people would think for the better, and the current crop of candidates are campaigning openly all over the country, attempting to win the support of branches, regions and provinces.  This is exactly what should happen in a democracy.  When Cyril Ramaphosa announced his ‘top six’ and especially his choice for deputy president he was attacked from all sides. 

The Star came out with a blazing headline: ‘Cyril’s big blunder.’ This was all based on the fact that some thought it wrong for him to express his preference for the people he would feel most comfortable working with in the leadership of the ANC.  That his opponents were likewise circulating lists of their preferred candidates, just leaking it to the media, was forgotten. The truth is that it was actually a good step forward in the normalising of our politics. Will the ANC loosen up and allow aspirants at all levels to do the same?

The ANC could learn a thing or two about internal party democracy from the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). Not only does the DA have peaceful meetings where all members have the right to express their views without fear of being hurt or killed, but it welcomes open competition for office.  Every member has the right to be nominated for any office in the party – from the highest to the most junior.

When Helen Zille announced that she was standing down as leader after eight years, Mmusi Maimane, Wilmot James and several others announced that they were considering standing. Open nominations were called for and all the aspirants, including one who had been a member of the DA for a month, were given the opportunity of meeting and addressing congress delegates at a series of debates that took place, at party expense, around the country.

The Gauteng provincial congress of the DA takes place later this month.  While it is true that the campaign became a tad heated and unpleasant for a day or two, that has calmed and meetings will be held in each of the five regions where the 32 aspirants for positions ranging from DA Youth all the way up to Gauteng provincial leader will each be able to address congress delegates and then be asked questions.

Politicians need to work hard to be elected into positions, not just rely on a slate or a more senior friend to give them a leg-up in return for lap-dog support.  Open campaigning should help ensure that it is merit that will count in the final voting, whether in the DA or the ANC because these are the upwardly mobile people the voters will in due course entrust with their future. 

The more one knows about them, what they have to offer and what they stand for, the better and stronger our democracy will be.  An ANC that becomes a normal political party such as one finds in every constitutional democracy in the world would certainly strengthen ours.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand.  His website is: Douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com.

This article first appeared in The Star newspaper.