High on the list of errors is its decision to close ranks in defence of President Jacob Zuma during the Nkandla debacle where public money was used on upgrades to his private homestead. Then there’s the deployment of incompetent “cadres” to critical positions in government as well as Zuma’s ill-timed cabinet reshuffle.
Critics argue that these problems stem from the ANC’s insistence on being a liberation movement, which they say is incompatible with a constitutional democracy.
This has raised the question about the party’s very nature: Is it not time for the ANC to stop seeing itself as a liberation movement but rather a modern, professional political party?
But that argument is hard to sustain. There’s nothing particular about political parties that makes them compatible with constitutional democracy.
Liberation movement vs political party
Those opposed to the ANC’s holding place as a liberation movement argue that a movement – liberation or social – is the old way of doing politics. This, they claim, was suitable during the struggles against colonialism and apartheid. But that struggle is now over and the post-apartheid era presents a new set of challenges.
The idea of a liberation movement keeps archaic and obsolete traditions alive. These include the leadership collective, consensus choice of leadership, revolution, comradeship, cadre deployment and patriarchal leadership patterns.
The role and character of liberation movements in power is informed by the democracy theory (coming out of liberalism ideology) and the theory of party dominance. These theories suggest that for democracy to be effective, there should be vibrant political party competition because it strengthens deliberative aspects of a liberal democracy. It also engenders internal dynamism and change of groups of elites in power.
The party dominance theory leads to the view that the ANC dominates South Africa’s politics because of its liberation movement legacy. This dominance is seen as inimical to democratic competition.
But when liberation movements become political parties they enhance their efficiency and effectiveness. They also deepen their internal democracy and their ability to connect with the wider public.
Internal democracy within the ANC is seen as particularly important given its political dominance.
Political parties shed the tendency towards democratic centralism, and its opaque internal political systems which insist on toeing the party line and brook no dissent.
Political parties are assumed to operate like professional associations. They value accountability and transparency, embracing modern systems of management and leadership. This enables them to become dynamic platforms for advancing refined political ends.
The conduct of Zuma and his cohort of leaders has been blamed on the ANC’s choice to remain steeped in the traditions of a liberation movement. The form determines the content: it produces tendencies that cause all manner of problems.
The ANC has made some catastrophic mistakes. It sometimes displayed arrogance in power and has allowed corrupt leaders to go unpunished.
There has also been a vacillation of policy stances on the economy, land and other crucial policy areas. Largely sound policies have been poorly implemented.
And there have been cases where the party and the state’s affairs have been conflated.
Some have argued that these problems stem from the ANC remaining essentially a liberation movement. To move with the times, they argue, it needs to assume a new, modern professional political party posture.
Lessons from elsewhere
The challenge in the ANC is, however, not unique to South Africa.
Liberal democrats in Japan, Christian democrats in Italy, the Communists (Kuomintang) in Taiwan and nationalist democrats in Kenya all experienced similar challenges.
Although they were not liberation movements, they share a number of features with the ANC. This includes arrogance of power, personalisation of power, elitism and the preponderance of sectional interests over the common good. So, it seems these are tendencies that need to be overcome.
It’s hard to sustain the argument that liberation movements are not right for democratic consolidation merely because they are movements or that political parties are by nature good for competitive politics. Political parties can dominate, distort, corrupt, abuse, and complicate democratic systems just as liberation movements deepen democracy by strengthening its social basis.
What the ANC needs to do
The ANC doesn’t need to transition into a political party, whatever that means in practice. But it needs to develop a leadership that’s competent to use the state to change the economy fundamentally in order to serve the majority and bring about qualitatively positive changes to the people, especially the poor.
The party needs to put a stop to the self-inflicted damage to its image through endless scandals, public displays of arrogance, factionalism and internal conflict.
The ANC also needs to end its practice of deploying poor quality cadres to critical state structures, and start heeding the counsel of its friends and foes that it must place the country’s interests before sectional interests of whatever faction of its leadership is in power.
It can look to the Chama Cha Mapinduzi movement that’s been in power in Tanzania since the 1960s for example.
The party has ensured an open contest for leadership positions. The elected leaders are then expected to root out corruption, crime, tribalism and so forth.
There’s a constant change of national leadership and a level of dynamism that enables the movement to adapt to changing society. It has produced leaders like Julius Nyerere and John Magafuli who commands respect across party lines.
If liberation movements were formed to achieve total decolonisation and freedom, then for as a long the process is incomplete, they will have a good reason to exist. Like orthodox political parties, they constantly have to adapt to change.
Ultimately, democracy is meaningless if it doesn’t improve the material circumstances for the people. To do this, political formations must be occupied by conscientious, competent, compassionate and interested political elite.
This is what the ANC has shown it lacks as it attempts to “deal” with every scandal and crisis it causes. The problem isn’t its commitment to being a liberation movement, but rather that it wants to be a callous one.