A version of this article was published in Business Day on March 16th.
The African National Congress (ANC) will hold its national policy conference in June this year, with its elective conference taking place in December. This will be the last major gathering of the ANC before the general elections in 2014, which will also mark two decades in power.
The biggest concern that should preoccupy ANC leaders today is what it will take to keep the party relevant and fit for the future? Its options are stark: modernise or perish. The existential crisis afflicting the ANC is not unique to it. Many other liberation movements or revolutionary parties have been prone to and often succumbed to it.
For Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF such a moment came at the dawn of the new millennium. President Robert Mugabe’s party hit a crisis of credibility and legitimacy just when the country reached two decades of liberation. At the heart of its political regression were failures of leadership and the weakening bond between the party and society.
In his book on the Chinese Communist Party, Cadres and Corruption, the Chinese scholar Xiaobo Lu points out that ‘involution [regression] takes place when a ruling party, in dealing with change of environment, opts to retain pre-existing modes and ethos rather than to adopt new ones’. It hides behind slogans, rhetoric, and history rather than face the brutal realities of change.
It does not take much to discern symptoms of the ANC’s own political regression, as these were well summarised in Gwede Mantashe’s organisational report at the National General Council in 2010. Mantashe lamented the rise of ill-discipline, infighting, and the influence of money in party structures.
Beyond Luthuli House, what has come to epitomise the crisis of the ANC in government is the palpable void of an absent leader who seems more interested in securing his own survival in the party than mastering the complexities of governing. The party lacks a defining theme for governance and a coherent story about what South Africa could become as a nation. Poorly articulated economic policies, with competing priorities and egos in the economic cluster; a generally weak bureaucratic machinery piloted by party cadres at the top; and a crisis of confidence in foreign policy are evident symptoms of ANC’s regression.
Unless the ANC is willing to make tough choices to modernise itself, it may be running out of time. The ANC needs to undertake major restructuring in three critical areas if it is to remain relevant.
First, the party needs to dispense with its backward-looking narrative about South Africa that places undue emphasis on race, and champion a forward-looking and inclusive agenda for change. It needs to decide whether it is a party of liberation frozen in time, or a political instrument that aligns its agenda closely with the desires and hopes of broader South African society.
In his autobiography, The Third Man, the former British Secretary of Business, Peter Mandelson, and one of the architects of New Labour, relates the arduous journey the Labour Party undertook to transform itself from a party beholden to the trade unions and sectional interests into a modern electoral machine that had a credible policy agenda that also appealed to the middle classes. Until Tony Blair assumed leadership of Labour in 1995, the party had been moribund for over a decade having suffered defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher’s Tories. The ANC does not need to face a crushing defeat before it acts.
Second, the ANC needs to reflect deeply on the kind of leaders it elects, especially since the president of the ANC seamlessly becomes that of the country. We should not be victims of a mediocre leadership succession process in the party. As a non-negotiable, the leader the party appoints should be ethically and intellectually grounded, especially since South Africa battles with the scourge of corruption, and needs fresh ideas about building the economy.
Finally, the ANC should overhaul its policy decision-making template. Currently, for any major policy to make it to government it needs to go through a tortuously slow party process. It is first debated at the National General Council, then it goes to the National Working Committee (NWC) for processing, then a study is commissioned, after which this is processed by the NWC again. It is then disseminated to the grotesque chaos that is the ANC’s branches before it is sent back to the party’s national policy conference. Only then does it get elevated to the national conference for resolution.
That may have worked well in the political stone age, but surely this is no way to run a modern government and party. Economic actors need decisions made quickly or they look elsewhere. Besides, this cumbersome process has become a hazard since the ANC is now partly a front for narrow, self-serving factional interests. It is even difficult to discern whether its president is authentic or fronting.
The ANC needs to understand that it is no longer a freedom struggle movement, but a governing institution that needs to serve the interests of broader society. Failure to rethink its character and redefine its approach to leadership could cost it dearly in future.