ANC can’t control its campaigning

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Competition is inevitable and forbidding it does not make it go away FOR the next five years, ANC members will, no doubt, continue to compete with each other for posts. Whether the ANC will admit that this is happening is unclear.

The governing party has released the full text of the resolutions passed at its Mangaung conference. Inevitably, some of them aim to ensure that ANC members no longer tear the organisation apart in their desire to win elections.

But it seems not to have made the most obvious change of all, allowing competition for posts. This would bring contest out in the open so that rules can be enforced which ensure that elections are free and fair.

According to a resolution: "the idea that those wishing to stand for election should be given an organisational platform to campaign was rejected". What this means is unclear. But the ANC leadership still seems eager to control competition. Last week, the ANC convened an event at which academics and commentators (including this one) discussed the Mangaung resolutions with secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.

When Mantashe was asked whether the resolution meant that campaigning was still discouraged, he replied that ANC members had opportunities to lobby for their favoured candidates but that the ANC was not going to imitate American political parties by allowing those who wanted office to campaign freely.

He and other ANC representatives insisted that the movement was not ready for the open campaigning within parties found in some other democracies. This could mean that the ANC is not willing to move away from its approach of last year, when members were told not to discuss leadership succession - and so not to campaign - until very late.

Or it could mean that it has simply rejected the idea that it should provide platforms for candidates to persuade members to vote for them. What is clear is that ANC leaders still believe that it is necessary to restrict competition for posts because free contest might tear the organisation apart.

And that probably means that some of the problems the ANC has faced over the past few years will continue. The argument that allowing free campaigning will damage the ANC ignores a crucial point; that competition happens in the ANC whether it is allowed or not and that seeking to control it is far more damaging than allowing it.

Last year's events surely demonstrated this. In theory, there was no campaigning in the ANC until a few weeks before Mangaung. In practice, the entire year was taken up with campaigning which proved very damaging to the ANC precisely because it was not allowed. Whatever rules may apply within the ANC, we live in a democracy in which media are free.

So ANC politicians who cannot openly campaign for office can use the media to do this for them. Since they can't do this openly, they have to use smears and leaks - to the ANC's cost. One way in which this is done is to leak claims to the media that rivals are corrupt or incompetent or both.

And so most of the scandals we read about ANC politicians come not from its opponents but from its own politicians. The impression that just about everyone in the ANC is corrupt is not only a product of prejudice among those who reject the organisation - it often comes from within the ANC and is a product of rules which force competition underground.

Discouraging open competition also ensures a steady flow of leaks which paint the ANC as a movement racked by internal wars. During much of last year, journalists did not need to attend ANC meetings to write reports portraying it as at war with itself - all they needed to do was read the message on their phones from ANC politicians trying to gain advantage over opponents.

The damage is not restricted to the organisation's public image. It isn't possible to make rules for something you insist should not exist - the use of alcohol by black people during the early apartheid period could not be subjected to rules because it was banned altogether.

And so the ANC has not effectively enforced controls on contest because it refuses to recognise it as a fact of political life. Although campaigning was not allowed in the run up to Mangaung, last year was particularly uncomfortable for the ANC - contests made it difficult to hold provincial nominating meetings and some elections were successfully challenged in court.

Meetings had to be postponed because delegates could not agree that the process of choosing leaders was fair. It may well be that all of this happened not despite the fact that contests were controlled, but because they were. Competition is inevitable in any democratic organisation and so forbidding it does not make it go away - it simply makes sure that it happens in ways which make it more damaging.

ANC leaders seem confident that the sorts of tensions they lived through last year have now gone. Mantashe pointed out that, despite warnings that Mangaung would be derailed by internal contest, it had been largely trouble free.

He also noted that, while only 60% of the organisation supported the leaders elected at Polokwane, 75% backed those chosen at Mangaung. In this view, the problem is over and there is no reason to allow and manage competition because it no longer threatens the organisation.

But the ANC is a governing party in a democracy and so there is very little likelihood that the calm achieved at Mangaung will last long. In 2002, the ANC's Stellenbosch conference was the quietest in its history - virtually no posts were contested. The next conference was Polokwane, at which the contest reached levels not seen for 50 years.

Competition for posts never goes away - it needs to happen in the open so that rules can ensure that it is not damaging. Unless that happens, the calm the ANC experiences today will turn out to be that which settles in just before a storm.

Prof Steven Friedman is the director of the centre for the study of democracy at Rhodes University/ University of Johannesburg

By Steven Friedman