In his latest report on the state of the ANC, secretary-general Gwede Mantashe makes an interesting point about the quality of branches and what influences their leadership choices.
“Although the membership of the ANC is more literate now, the culture of reading policy documents of the movement is dying,” Mantashe writes in his diagnostic report presented at the policy conference last month.
“(This is) because political and ideological clarity is no longer the deciding factor for election to leadership positions and deployment.”
He further states that members are introduced to perspectives of factions before they even understand the politics of the movement.
“This lack of understanding translates into brutality against one another in a phenomenon of being with us or against us,” Mantashe writes.
Of course this is hardly new information.
It has been raised by various leaders of the ANC many times before.
In fact, Mantashe’s detractors often argue that he himself has contributed in various ways to the multi-layered, factional quagmire in which the party finds itself. You are welcome to debate that. I am simply raising his observation because it is crucial to where the ANC is right now.
One of the party’s favourite slogans says Amandla asemasebeni.
It comes from the noble principle that, ultimately, the ANC’s power lies with ordinary members in its branches.
Ideally, they have the power to shape the direction of the party, to choose leaders they believe will take their movement and our nation forward.
Only there is nothing ideal about our politics.
By the ANC’s own admission, many of its branches are often chaotic. At times their decisions have no credibility.
They are manipulated, even violently, by those who are hell-bent on pursuing narrow political and economic interests.
This week the party again postponed its much anticipated Eastern Cape elective conference – set to be held next week – to the end of next month.
At face value the postponement makes sense for logistical reasons.
Provincial secretary Oscar Mabuyane said about 100 branches were still to hold their general meetings.
In line with the ANC’s democratic processes, it is at these meetings that members exercise their power to deliberate and choose their preferred candidates for provincial and ultimately national leadership.
(If you believe the ANC has got the 2019 election in the bag, then you may also add that it is at such meetings that your premier and president may be chosen).
Another reason for the postponement is the disputes raised by those who have already held their meetings.
It appears there are about 100 of these – at last count 15 were from Nelson Mandela Bay.
They are lodged by members who allege that branch meetings had either been manipulated, or were not properly constituted in line with the ANC’s constitution.
On the one hand, one could argue that disputes are a normal part of contestation and that the attention given to them by the party’s leadership shows a commitment to transparency and credibility in the process of electing leaders.
On the other, such disputes raised may also indicate how susceptible branches are to manipulation of their democratic processes. Here’s an example. Last week three ANC members from Motherwell told this newspaper that they were visited in their homes by a branch leader who had tried to get them to sign an attendance register even though they did not attend their branch meeting days before.
If the claim is true, it suggests an attempt to cook the books, possibly to create an impression that the meeting reached a quorum and thus was constitutional, therefore its decisions reflect a legitimate will of the majority of its members.
The three said they refused to sign and blew the whistle instead.
When asked, ANC regional secretary Themba Xathula did not confirm or deny the claim.
Instead he scolded the members for raising the matter with the media rather than dealing with it in-house. Fair enough.
However, the extent of factionalism at all levels of the party is such that many of its members do not have confidence in the credibility of its processes.
And this is precisely the point.
While disputes lodged make up a fraction of the branches that met, they are important for two reasons.
For starters, they raise questions about the credibility of democratic processes at the most crucial level of the party.
Second, they suggest a push to tip the scales to influence the outcome of a tightly contested election.
Even when escalated to higher structures of the party, the view held by many ANC members is that even those who oversee these processes are themselves likely to ensure an outcome in line with their own vested factional interests.
Real or perceived, this view is commonplace.
It makes a mockery of the claim that an ANC branch is the power base and the heartbeat of the movement.
Often it can be traced back to lived experiences where the will of members is sacrificed at the altar of political expediency for the benefit of a powerful elite.
It’s been done before, in moments of history where the stakes were much lower.
Nwabisa Makunga is The Herald deputy editor.