ANC renewal vital to transforming South African society

The ANC can learn a lot from the Swedish Social Democratic Party, writes WESLEY SEALE  

Three years ago, over 11 million South Africans voted for the ANC. Yet, as the ANC prepares for its 54th National Conference, less than a million South Africans are members of the ANC. The ANC therefore overwhelmingly counts on its voters and supporters rather than its members to bring it to power.

However, these members play an important role and influence that figure of 11 million. How ANC members interact on a very grassroots level with supporters and voters determines whether the supporters will continue voting for the ANC.

Breakaways from the ANC nationally have traction on the ground because of infighting in the ANC at a local level and the impact these fights have on the local community. We see this most evidently in service delivery protests where some ANC leaders or members are involved in leading the protests. Research done by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation corroborates this trend. Therefore, what happens in the ANC to a large extent influences communities and their support for the ANC.

Given that the ANC, unlike the DA for example, is a unitary organisation, what happens at a national level and in Luthuli House in particular has a direct impact on the local or branch level, where the people are at. It is articulated in the Constitution of the ANC that it is the branch which is the basic unit of the organisation, though in the last thirty years we have seen a rapid eroding of the influence of the branch.

Correctly so, for a unitary organisation unlike a federal one, the national conference held every five years is the highest decision-making body. The NEC is the highest decision-making body between conferences except when a National General Council is in session.

The history of our country influenced the ANC. It was pivotal for the ANC to promote a unitary state during negotiations as well in order to overcome regionalism which creeps up when one has a federal system. It is important that we share the country together and that no one region is said to belong to a particular race or ethnic group.

The challenges faced by the ANC at the moment have largely to do with questions of organisation. At a very local level branches face lack of membership, gatekeeping and factionalism. The NEC is said to be bloated and, unless after a national conference where a new breed of members has been elected, powerless in the face of a united top six or a powerful president.

The upcoming National Policy Conference as well as the National Conference to be held later in the year will be a watershed one for the ANC. In light of declining support for the ANC at the polls, and especially in urban areas, this conference will determine the future of the ANC. It would have been 23 years since the former liberation movement took power.

As a result, it would be good to concentrate on organisation and policy, as the ANC does in its discussion documents. One example of a party that has had to evolve and which shares more or less the same age as the ANC, is the Swedish Social Democratic Party. It is a party that dominates Swedish politics though not always winning power; the 2006 election being their worst performance with 35 percent of the vote.

The party espouses Marxist revisionism by promoting more a sense of democratic influence over the economy than a common ownership of the means of production. They believe that the political and economic spheres are two sides to the same coin while trying to convince middle-class voters to be in solidarity with the working class and poorer members of society. New Labour in the United Kingdom also used this ‘politics of solidarity’ between the classes in order to come to power in the late nineties.

The ANC has tried to accommodate this solidarity but it has not yielded fruits as fast enough as policies in Brazil and China have done. Policies in these countries have taken millions out of poverty within years. Instead, one of the fundamental tasks of the ANC today is to convince capital, which remains overwhelmingly White, and the foreign investors of the fundamental need for radical economic transformation.  

Suggesting that concepts such as radical economic transformation does not exist or does not make sense does not help the ANC in retaining its voters. What this kind of transformation means is that lives of ordinary people in South Africa, especially those suffering from structural poverty, gross inequalities and vast unemployment must change for the better.

However, there are some organisational methods that we could use from the Swedish Social Democratic Party as well. The membership of the party is more or less that of the ANC, one percent of the population. Also with strong alliances with the labour unions, it has approximately 2800 branches. The ANC is supposed to have 4392 branches, mirroring the number of wards in the country. Sweden has 290 municipalities while South Africa has 234 metropolitan and local municipalities.

Much has been said about the size of the ANC’s NEC. Yet with a membership five times the size of the SSDP, the NEC is only three times the size of the SSDP’s national board, the highest decision-making body in the SSDP between national congresses.

As a unitary state, Sweden has no provinces but enjoys 26 counties where regional leadership takes place. In South Africa, regional leadership, at a district municipal level, of which there are 44 plus 8 metros while the ANC has 53 regions. Yet these regions are weaker than the provinces, as constitutionally regions only have delegated powers; power coming from the province.

It would, therefore, be viable for the ANC to split the power that the provinces enjoy and do away with the current form of the provincial structure and instead give more power to its regions. In this way, deployees and those in the regional leadership are much more accountable to the branch and the national leadership.

At the same time, there is also the notion of a national conference on an annual basis which the SSDP constitution stipulates. This is separate to the national congress which happens a year before the national elections. Given that the ANC believes its president should also be the president of the Republic, it would be good to shorten the 18 months which now exists in South Africa to a year. It also brings about stability in the party and country.

The idea of an annual conference allows for the national board to be kept accountable on an annual basis. Fewer delegates attend the annual national conference, as opposed to the congress, and this will allow more accountability between conference delegates and the national executive. Currently, ANC branches have to wait 5 years before they can hold members of the NEC accountable through a ballot box.

Long a sister organisation of the SSDP, the ANC must not fear in adapting to be a viable political party rather than a liberation movement. It must be able to assess its successes and failures in the last twenty-three years in government and its last twenty-seven years since its unbanning.

Organisationally it has to be brave and restructure itself but it must do so in order to affect the lives of ordinary South Africans. For it is the people and supporters, and not its members, who mandate it with power.

Wesley Seale Teachers Politics & International Studies at Rhodes University.

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