Now ANC needs to prove itself

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma's landslide victory at the ANC's Mangaung elective conference raises pertinent questions about the future of the ANC as a ruling party and an important role player in the nurturing of our nascent democracy.

As expected, those who supported Zuma's re-election describe his victory as an example of the workings of internal democracy within the ANC.

But the question still remains whether the Mangaung election outcome is a confirmation of the ANC as an asset or a liability to democracy.

History has taught us that while politics are a vital asset to a vibrant democracy, they also have the great potential to become a political liability to democracy.

This depends, among other things, on their mode of internal governance and also how they respond to external political stimuli. This, as research has shown, is further compounded by the tendency of the politics of patronage to take centre stage within (especially ruling) political parties.

As a former liberation movement the ANC has taken major steps towards transforming itself into a party that can become a political asset to a thriving democracy.

These include building itself as a mass-based party (by reaching the one-million member mark); decentralising decision making in the candidate nomination process, that is, allow branches to do the actual nominations; as well as the inclusion of women in their elective process.

Unfortunately the development of phenomena like slate politics and the culture of patronage are militating against the noble steps the ANC has taken towards becoming that vital asset to the thriving democracy for which the majority of South Africans aspire.

The reality is that Zuma and the rest of the new ANC top six officials did not achieve a landslide victory due to the workings of the ANC internal democracy. They won because of slate politics. By their nature slate politics undermine one of the basic tenets of a democratic election - electing individuals on the basis of their individual capacity and competencies.

Zuma and his slate comrades were voted into power as a political statement against those who supported Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.

One of the challenges for the new leadership is therefore to start by confronting the reality that slate politics and the politics of patronage are gnawing at the roots of the culture of democracy the ANC needs to promote within itself.

This - and not making public statements about the need to embrace those who challenged them in the election - will go a long way to assisting the ANC in becoming a much needed asset for a thriving democracy.

The new leadership need to show that it understands the importance of real internal democracy because as Norris Pippa argues "it nurtures citizens' political competencies and capable representative, who in turn ensure that the party produces better political programmes".

Externally, the ANC faces major challenges. Author Christopher Clapham identifies the fact that "liberation credit is a finite one and it does get exhausted in the minds of the population much sooner than leaders recognise" as one of the challenges governing former liberation movements like the ANC are facing.

Clapham argues that when liberation credit gets exhausted the ruling party is judged "not by its promises but by its performance".

The reality is that the ANC's high capital from the merits in the liberation struggle is fading with the years.

The spate of violent labour unrest, the Marikana uprising , the raging service delivery protests and the overall rejection of both the ANC and its allies within Cosatu by some of the workers are indications that the liberation credit has reached its expiry date.

As Clapham points out, what compounds the situation for the ANC is the fact that the behaviour of certain leaders (including ANC president Jacob Zuma and his newly elected deputy Cyril Ramaphosa) sends out a message that says to ordinary South Africans "the former liberation leadership has entrenched itself in positions of privilege reminiscent of its ousted predecessor, in alliance with interests still outstanding from earlier times".

The question remains whether by re-electing Zuma and his new cohort of leadership the ANC has actually risen to the occasion and elected the kind of people who will face these challenges.

Unfortunately both Zuma and his deputy come into office with some political deficit, created by their involvement in the R250-million Nkandla and Marikana scandals, respectively.

This column was first published in the printed newspaper on 20 December 2012