We in the media are at times so fixated with the ANC’s race to Mangaung that we end up dealing quite superficially with developments in the party that warrant closer scrutiny and explanation to the party’s members and the public.
It is true that the elective conference looms large and is deserving of the attention it gets. Whoever conquers Mangaung will eventually end up running the country – that is, if the ANC does not pull a Thabo Mbeki on one Jacob Zuma should he end up on the losing side – two centres of power and all that jazz.
Yet there are other interesting things happening within the ruling party that are deserving of closer public interrogation and debate. Good things, at that.
As the ruling party prepares for its policy conference in June, it is, to its credit, giving us a glimpse of the issues that will be debated. Some of them are quite refreshing and interesting. This week’s release of the policy document on organisational renewal is a case in point.
It is clear that the ANC is well aware of the dangers inherent in the internal chaos it currently finds itself. The party is known more for ugly and very public internal power struggles, driven by personal ambition and a “me first” disposition among leaders at all levels.
Power struggles are par for the course in politics. It is the nature of the beast. However, how this is managed is crucial. It requires a certain discipline that allows for tough and even rough internal competition – the type that strengthens rather than weakens.
As a liberation movement this is what the ANC was known for. It was fighting to overthrow an undemocratic regime. Success, it seems, brought about the spectre of what to do with the spoils that under the leadership of Nelson Mandela was dealt with in, more or less, appropriate ways.
Mandela’s departure from the scene had a significant impact on the internal cohesiveness that for so long characterised the ANC. Surely, even in his time, there must have been power struggles about succession. Stories abound about how Thabo Mbeki pipped Cyril Ramaphosa to the post of deputy president and heir apparent.
If the stories are to believed, it was politics at its toughest – but very little of it ended up as dirty linen in the public domain. Certainly, none of it came close to the spectacle we witnessed at Polokwane in 2007 and its aftermath.
Polokwane set a precedent that changed the nature and character of the ANC. It still surprises that people wonder that it didn’t stop there. Polokwane gave rise to the Julius Malemas of our time and the ANC is paying a price for it. The good news, if the organisational policy document is anything to go by, is that the penny seems to have dropped.
Sceptics may say this is, in fact, just more politics. In my view the ANC should get the benefit of the doubt. It is in its own interest and, given its dominance of the political scene, the country’s interest, that it should be encouraged to reexamine its moorings, clean up its act and return to stability and sound organisational practice based on strong internal integrity.
Thus instead of smirking about it all – which is unfortunately increasingly our wont – we should applaud and encourage.
One of the ideas I particularly like is the declared intention to democratise the manner in which the ANC chooses representative leaders, whether internally or for public office. The example of the primary election system in the United States has been mooted.
The ANC flirted in practice with this idea during the local government elections last year. It subjected candidates to scrutiny by branch members and the community at large. It was not an entirely successful exercise, but in many areas ANC members and the voters could interrogate candidates on what they would do once in office.
The American system is by no means perfect. Money is more often than not the deciding factor and to get to the money, candidates often have to make promises that have more to do with vested, rather than public, interests.
Yet is fascinating watching the Republican Party primary process to choose the candidate who will go up against Barack Obama in November. You end up with more or less a clear sense of what the candidate stands for on the full range of issues and challenges confronting American society.
This is the way for us to go in South Africa and it is encouraging that the ANC has not given up on it.
Imagine a scenario in which Zuma and Kgalema Motlanthe, should he challenge, crisscross the country explaining why one of them is best suited to lead the ANC and eventually the country.
Imagine, radio and television debates between the ANC presidential candidate and candidates from other parties – Zuma (or whoever) versus Helen Zille on radio and television!
But let us not get ahead of ourselves. For the moment the internal ANC process is a good enough starting point for a more public elective process. Let’s hope they have the gumption to see the idea through this time at the policy conference in June.