IT takes much more than conference resolutions to mend an organisation. But conference decisions can show a willingness to begin to fix problems.
It is obvious that the African National Congress (ANC) has arrived in Mangaung with severe problems — many are listed in its own documents. If further evidence was needed, a Constitutional Court order setting aside the election of its Free State leadership, and conflict-ridden nominating conferences in Limpopo, the North West and the Western Cape, provide it.
Given the extent of the problems, the most urgent challenge facing the ANC is not how to find new ways to fix the society, but how to fix itself. The most obvious weakness is an inability to ensure that election losers accept that the winners won fairly. This is a symptom of a deeper problem — intense competition for positions and claims that force, fraud and money are used to secure advantage.
This is often a symptom of a tendency by some to use the ANC office to secure private and public funds. Inevitably, this ensures perhaps the most serious problem of all — a widening gulf between ANC leaders and supporters, many of whom believe that politicians are now far more interested in themselves and each other than the people who voted for them.
Mangaung cannot fix these problems. Those who use ANC office to enrich themselves or to unfairly influence elections will not stop because a resolution tells them they must. And, while some in the ANC believe that voters’ confidence can be won back by adopting policies that promise to address poverty, this misreads the core problem: that many supporters want ANC politicians to listen to them, not to do things for them. And leaders can’t be made to listen by resolutions.
But the resolutions passed at the conference could give a sense of whether the ANC is getting on top of its problems. If we want a sense of how serious it is, three issues, which can be addressed by resolutions, may give us clues.
First, it would have to fix its election procedures. Election results are likely to be challenged unless whoever organises them is clearly impartial or if all sides are represented in managing the process (the Independent Electoral Commission’s credibility partly stems from the fact that all parties have a say in its work). If the ANC wants its elections to escape challenge, it could introduce either arrangement.
It could also make its elections more open by allowing campaigning — within agreed rules — rather than the current system in which factions fight their battles in the shadows.
Second, the ANC would need to show a willingness to begin cutting the link between politics and money. One start would be to pass a clear resolution calling for a law to force politicians and parties to say where they get their money. Obviously, politicians who are threatened by this will find ways round it — but a law would offer the possibility of holding them and their private donors to account.
Third, it might signal to ANC voters that it takes them seriously by resolving not to proceed with the Traditional Courts Bill that is currently before Parliament.
The bill, which is opposed by some ANC leaders, would boost the power of traditional leaders by forcing people subject to their authority to use traditional courts, controlled by the leaders. It is probably a reward to the leaders for supporting the ANC but would make life very difficult for many ANC supporters in rural areas — which is why civil society organisations are campaigning against it. A resolution insisting that the bill be dropped would signal a willingness to put voters before elites.
This is not an exhaustive list. But the three examples are all supported by some within the ANC, and so there is at least some prospect that they may come up at the conference. All three are also capable of implementation — the change in the electoral process and the decision to drop the bill would be very easy to implement. All three would send a signal that the ANC is prepared to tackle its growing internal tensions.
If we want to know whether Mangaung is a sign that the ANC is addressing its problems rather than a symptom of how deep they have become, decisions on these issues will give us a sense of the answer.
Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.