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Democratic participation by the rank and file of the ANC in the December national leadership conference is a charade. A genuinely open system in which members are able to choose quality candidates must be introduced.

The way in which the ANC elects its president is deeply flawed, is skewed towards churning out poor quality leaders and turns members and supporters into frustrated and impotent bystanders.

Firstly, the 4500 voting delegates that will vote for the ANC president at the party’s upcoming December 2012 national conference are not representative of ordinary ANC members and supporters, let alone the country.

Currently every branch has one vote (this rise to two or three if it is a large city branch) at the ANC’s national conference. Each branch sends one voting delegate (or 2 or 3 if it is a large branch) to the ANC’s national conference, to vote on behalf of the branch.

The voting delegate usually sent by the branch is often one of the most senior branch leaders: either the secretary or the chairperson of the branch. Furthermore, the branch secretary or chairperson is usually either an elected representative such as a mayor or local councilor or a senior civil servant, or a prominent businessperson doing business with the government.

This means the voting delegates coming from the branches would normally be the ANC’s establishment. The voting delegates therefore are most certainly unlikely to be your ordinary ANC supporter: working class, unemployed, or those in economic distress. Neither are they the type that will be using the lethargic public hospitals, send their children to ineffective state schools, or one of the majority who daily risk their lives using minibus taxis to go from one point to the other.


In fact, there is a deepening social gap between the ANC’s leaders who in most cases live in luxury far remove from the daily grind of ordinary ANC supporters and members. This is for example, why the Marikana explosion could happen in Rustenburg, with the ANC’s local (Rustenburg) branch leaders there caught totally caught off guard (off course the ANC national and provincial leaders were also flatfooted).

Many of the voting delegates coming from the branches will be conflicted as they will instinctively vote for the current president or national leaders, on whom they depend on for retaining their and government jobs and government tenders. Many would naturally fear that voting for a new president may mean the end of their party and government jobs as councilors or their supply of government tenders.

Voting at branch level for who should be the branch’s candidate for the presidency is mostly by a show of hands, not secret ballot. It is not hard to imagine that an ordinary member at branch level who votes “against” the presidential candidate preference of the local leadership will be isolated: meaning unlikely to get a job, RDP house or government contract.


In the current ANC system branch membership records are kept by branch secretaries. This means branch secretaries can conveniently make the membership of members, who disagree with their choices of candidates or policies, disappear – and so make them illegible to vote - at branch annual general meetings. For another, since the branch secretaries keep membership records they could easily stack meetings with allies whose membership cannot be independently verified.

Audits of ANC branch membership are done by the office of the ANC general secretary – not by an independent outside institution. If the general secretary is running for re-election, he or she is obviously conflicted. The real danger then is that the sitting general secretary wanting re-election may penalize branches suspected of opposing his or her re-election, by finding reasons to make the dissident branches ineligible to vote. The sitting general secretary running for re-election could also prop up non-functioning branches that favour him or her for re-election.


In the ANC’s internal election process nominees for the ANC presidency is usually pre-selected by a small, shadowy, and elite group. The ANC’s national deployment committee often plays a key behind the scenes role in the pre-selection of ANC presidential candidates, nominees or selection deals.
These pre-selected presidential nominees are then “presented” to the ANC provinces and branches to “select” their preferred candidates from.
The idea of deployment committees which not only exist at national level, but also at provincial and municipal levels, undermines the ANC’s internal democracy.

Exactly who the elite group that pre-select ANC presidential nominees and how they come up with their decisions is covered in a veil of secrecy. Not only is the group that pre-selects who should stand as ANC presidential candidates too narrow, the choices of presidential candidate nominees “presented” to provinces and branches are obviously far too limited.

ANC deployment committees often pre-select favoured candidates not only for leadership within the ANC, but also for positions at all levels of government and sometimes even tenders.

These deployment committees are often dominated by the faction in national control of the ANC – since the 2007 ANC Polokwane national conference – Zuma. In the last local elections, deployment committees pre-selected candidates that would be ANC local councilor candidates and mayors.


Zuma’s inner ANC coalition that brought him to power at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane national conference has now disintegrated. There is now a fierce battle between the now divided Polokwane Zuma coalition for control of these deployment committees.

Presidential candidates who pre-selected nominees will not make any inroads. This was the case with Tokyo Sexwale ahead of the 2007 ANC Polokwane national conference, where he stood as presidential candidate, but was not “approved” as a nominee. Branches and voting delegates were encouraged not to endorse a Sexwale presidential nomination.

The fact that the branch delegates send to the ANC’s national conference are mostly senior local ANC leaders linked to government or government business means that the voice of ordinary members and supporters in reality do not count for much.

We see public protests at local level against poor public services, indifferent public representatives and official corruption almost daily now. Most of these protests are by ANC members.

One of the reasons for them venting their anger in the streets – often violently, is because they have, as ordinary ANC members, little power in their branches to hold their local ANC leaders, who in most cases are the local councilors, accountable through branch meetings.

Some members even vent their frustration in their inability to influence the policies and leadership elections of their local ANC branches by violently attacking local ANC councilors.

The reality is that for Kgalema Motlanthe and the “Anyone but Zuma (ABZ) campaign to change the branch delegates from voting for the incumbent president will need them to be individually reassured that they will be re-appointed as councilors or their new government contracts will be renewed, even if they are ineffective as public representatives, corrupt or do not deliver on government contracts.


Clearly, the whole flawed internal ANC electoral process encourages corruption.
The decisions on who should be pre-selected to be nominated for the ANC presidency and who vote on them is a closed system, inaccessible to ordinary ANC members and supporters.

The ANC urgently needs to modernize, democratize and renew its internal workings or face becoming wholly ossified.

The elements of such a modernization program must include opening the ANC leadership elections, so that every individual member or supporter, affiliate organization or tripartite alliance partner can nominate a presidential candidate. Any ANC member should be able to avail him or herself for the presidency.

Nominated presidential candidates compete at a provincial level through competitive elections, in the same way US party candidates compete against each other. A system could be introduced whereby nominated candidates must be able to have a minimum number of verified nominations, let’s take an arbitrary figure of say, 1000 individual ANC members.

The winners of the provincial voting contests must then compete in a national contest. The presidential candidates must publicly debate their policy positions, and then all ANC members must vote in their individual capacity, not through branches. Such new system would be like the US primary system, or the method introduced by the French Socialist Party last year, which gave all members and supporters and chance to vote for the party’s presidential candidate.

In such a new system, every ANC member must be able to vote in their individual capacity, not through a branch, or through sending a proxy to a national conference.

President Jacob Zuma’s acumen has been that he knows how to use the current opaque internal electoral system of the ANC to his own advantage. Furthermore, being the sitting president, Zuma has the added advantage of being able to use state power, institutions and patronage to reinforce his own power in the ANC. Zuma can use his control of state patronage to sideline would-be critics, opponents and rivals, by either barring them from state jobs or contracts or rewarding them.


In the current internal electoral system of the ANC, even if ordinary ANC members and supporters want to replace Zuma as leader, they will find it an uphill battle.

In general elections, most ANC members vote for the ANC as a movement, not for the individual ANC leader. Therefore, even if an ANC president is unpopular among broader society, he or she only has to be able to manage or control the internal electoral college of the ANC – and that person will be elected the country president because ANC members mostly vote for the movement, the so-called “collective”, not the individual leader.

The very obvious short-coming of the ANC’s current electoral college is that it does not measure leaders on their ability to manage the country, government or ANC well; but on whether they will be able to reward the ANC electoral college, the party establishment and whether they will be able to ensure influential factions are provided with patronage or at least left alone to accumulate wealth.

This means that unless the ANC modernize, renew and democratize its internal election process, it will produce leaders that will keep the ANC’s establishment happy, but who will be ineffective in governing a complex country, with complex problems, operating in an increasing complex world.
Clearly, the ANC internal “democracy” when it comes to leadership election is dangerously flawed, and unless the ANC introduces genuine democracy into its internal election process, it will continue to produce flawed leaders.

The big question is at what point becomes the social distance between the ANC’s leaders, whether at branch, provincial or national level, and its members and supporters so deep, that the supporters don’t identify with the leaders anymore and as a consequence don’t identify with the party itself anymore, and won’t vote for the ANC anymore? For now, the disconnect between the ANC’s leaders and its ordinary members and supporters have not been translated into the ANC losing elections.


However, the Lonmin Marikana mine explosion may be the tipping point, which has showed that the social distance between the ANC leaders and ordinary supporters may be now so deep that it may translate into the ANC losing votes dramatically in the next general elections.

The Marikana crisis was a manifestation of the social gap between the leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and ordinary becoming so great that the ordinary miners could not identify with their leaders and trade union anymore and therefore sought leaders and established a new organization, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

Clearly, the social gap between the ANC leadership and ordinary members has now become such a gulf that many ANC members may not be able to identify themselves with both the leaders and party anymore. A case in point is Zuma’s building of a R200m compound with taxpayers at his Nkandla homestead, while villagers living in the area live in dire poverty. Yet, astonishingly, the president and ‘communist’ leaders such as higher education minister Blade Nzimande cannot see anything wrong with this.

Unless there is change in the ANC’s leaders, including replacing Zuma as president, the ANC may fragment, just as happened with the NUM at the Marikana mine: we may see more frustrated ANC members standing as independents at local level, breakaway ANC provincial parties forming at provincial level, and more Congress of the People (COPE)-like breakaways at national level.


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* Prof William Gumede is author of the recently released bestselling Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times, Tafelberg
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Sunday Independent, 18 November 2012, Johannesburg