Slates crush merit in back room deals

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Elections are healthy for any political organisation – but only if they are free and fair. If they are not, they can tear parties and movements apart.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said last week that he was “agonising” about whether to stand for ANC president. The statement seemed puzzling. Motlanthe knows that ANC presidents are chosen by the branches and that most branches are supporting President Jacob Zuma. So why agonise? Why not withdraw quietly rather than contest an election you are fated to lose?

The answer became clear early this week when an interview with Motlanthe was published. Some of his message has to be read between the lines but it seems clear enough.

Motlanthe, the interview tells us, wants free elections in the ANC. He is uncomfortable with choosing leaders through back-room dealing. Previously, he has criticised the “slates” which rival factions draw up, suggesting that candidates should be elected on their merits, not because they are part of a ticket drawn up by a faction. Now, he is going further, criticising attempts to prevent an election at Mangaung by hammering out a back-room deal in which the factions will agree on a set of top six office bearers.

The interview suggests that Motlanthe would be unhappy with a deal to re-elect the existing office bearers unopposed – he wants to serve the ANC only if he is elected by its members, not if he is anointed by its leaders.

This means that he may prefer to stand for office and lose – than to be re-elected in a back room deal.

So he could challenge Zuma for the presidency even though he is sure to lose, simply to make the point that senior positions should be contested. And, if he follows through on this, he would be prepared to lose the deputy presidency of the ANC to make the point that the membership should choose leaders.

If this is what Motlanthe has in mind, he deserves immense admiration. Our politics have become a scramble for position; few, if any, of our politicians are prepared to sacrifice high office to make a point of principle. And the point he makes is important. The tradition of choosing candidates by making deals between leaders is a long-standing one in the ANC. There may have been good reasons for it when the ANC was suppressed by the apartheid state, but there are no reasons for it now.

Some in the ANC would love to return to the old days when there were no open contests for office – Motlanthe is correct to insist that this is a deeply undemocratic fantasy. In an open society, people are entitled to contest for posts in political organisations – trying to stop them causes conflict and damages the organisation.

But, while Motlanthe is right to want an election, in the real world in which the ANC currently finds itself, it is open to serious doubt whether elections are possible.

The process of nominating candidates and selecting branch delegates for Mangaung has continued a trend within the ANC in which, each year, it becomes more and more difficult for it to hold elections that are seen by its members as free and fair.

It has become routine for ANC elections to be accompanied by claims and counter claims of unfair conduct. Increasingly, scheduled meetings at which elections are meant to be held are delayed because it is claimed that delegates were not elected fairly. Some of these meetings start late because of these claims, some have to be postponed until a future date.

Symptoms can be seen in the provincial general council meetings which nominate candidates: North West had two parallel meetings, Western Cape did not complete its meeting and Limpopo’s was stormed by people trying to get delegates to support President Zuma. But even in some provinces where the meetings were concluded, there have been challenges to the process’s fairness – Eastern Cape’s meeting was marked by a challenge from the OR Tambo District and in Gauteng there were claims that the provincial leadership made life difficult for branches which support Zuma.

Behind the scenes, ANC politicians who were campaigning for Motlanthe to replace Zuma are complaining that the process has not been fair.

A while ago, this column asked whether Mangaung could be similarly delayed or disrupted by challenges to the selection of voting delegates. The events of the past few days have made this a strong possibility.

Mangaung could very well be dogged by claims of unfairness which could make it difficult to hold elections. If they are held, it is hard to see how results, which are accepted by the losers, are possible. And so a contested election seems certain to increase conflict inside the ANC.

The obvious short-term solution is to not hold an election – to follow the example of the SA Communist Party and Cosatu and to re-elect the leadership. The central problem – that the ANC is no longer able to hold elections whose results are accepted by the losers – will remain. But the governing party would avert immediate disaster and buy itself some time to try to restore credible elections.

Motlanthe’s principled stand would make a deal to prevent an election impossible. And so he must be facing severe pressure to agree to serve a second term as Zuma’s deputy on an unopposed ticket. This is presumably why he is “agonising” – if he stands, the ANC could be damaged, if he does not, he will be abandoning the important principle that leaders ought to be elected by those whom they serve.

His decision could decide whether the ANC avoids a severe setback at Mangaung. But, whatever, he decides, the problem will remain.

The ANC is in crisis and it faces years of damaging conflict followed by a split unless it can find ways to ensure that elections are a free and fair way of choosing leaders, not a war between factions in which anything goes.

  • Prof Steven Friedman is the director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. This article was published on The New Age.