ANC factionalism: Curse or blessing?

Factionalism in the ANC is seen as a form of corruption but it may be a sign of mutation into a political party.

The ANC’s internal life has been complicated recently by factionalism, ie by rivalries between the supporters of particular local or regional personalities. In 2001 the national leadership dissolved the Limpopo organisation temporarily because of factional strife, and also replaced elected provincial officials in the Free State and Gauteng after feuding reached unacceptable levels. ANC analysts argue that factionalism is ‘wholly… caused by corruption… the scramble for power… and a tendency for comrades to regard local structures as their own fiefdoms’. Elected public offices are well remunerated today and therefore the stakes involved in winning or losing are very high in poor communities. Moreover, the practice of politically preferential tendering has created a situation in which companies support certain ANC members so that they can get contracts. However, not all local dissent is ‘careerist’ – some of it is motivated by principled opposition to policies. Personal rivalries often split the party along racial or ethnic faultlines. In the Western Cape, for example, rivalry tends to be between Africans and coloureds. Patronage plays a role in garnering support at branch level; housing scandals in Gauteng recently involved local councillors who allocated Reconstruction and Development Programme dwellings to family members and friends. But there are structural limitations to this. Patron-client relations are more prevalent when there are high localised inequalities and the state has a weak local presence, but the South African government has an unusually extensive penetration for a developing country and therefore the role that patrons can play is limited. The ANC established a national deployment committee to try to prevent no-holds-barred power struggles ‘on the part of opportunists who were interested only in personal material gain’, but the committee made some questionable appointments and was subsequently disbanded. In any case, the party’s rank and file are cynical about leadership calls for good behaviour when the higher levels continue to tolerate corruption. At all levels of government, the ANC’s imperative to use political power to extend black control of the economy all too easily becomes conflated with venal rent-seeking and rewards for support. ANC leaders resist the suggestion that the party is becoming increasingly oriented to the demands of electoralism and parliamentary politics, but the evidence suggests that this is what is happening. The increasing tendency for ANC members to become preoccupied by the competition of rival factions for public office may be a reassuring symptom that our politicians are adopting habits that are quite normal in a liberal democracy.

Aside from ideological concerns, the ANC's internal life is complicated by what the leadership insists is a relatively "new phenomenon", what it calls factionalism, or rivalries between the supporters of particular personalities. Though such competition may assume an ideological dimension, its real causes, ANC officials suggest, are a consequence of the extension through the movement of patron-client relations between local or regional personalities and ordinary ANC members.

The ANC's national leadership justified the temporary dissolution of the Limpopo organization in 2001 with reference to factional strife, that is jockeying for party positions and public office by rival personalities and their followers. Nationally appointed "interim leadership structures" also replaced elected provincial executives in the Free State and Gauteng in 2001 after feuding between different regional executives reached unacceptable levels of intensity.

In Gauteng one errant group was led by Isaac Mahlangu, the mayor of Khayalami metropolitan council until his displacement as a consequence of Khayalami's incorporation into the East Rand municipality and his subsequent "redeployment" to the lesser post of chair of the Gauteng Tourism Authority. Competition for municipal office became especially accentuated in the run-up to the municipal elections because of the reduction of the number of councillors resulting from the creation of fewer local authorities.

ANC analysts argue that factionalism is "wholly and singularly caused by corruption... the scramble for power, state resources and a tendency for comrades to regard local structures as their own fiefdoms". All elected public offices in South Africa are today quite generously remunerated and in poor communities the stakes involved in winning or losing such positions are consequently very high. In his interview with Helena Sheehan in January 2002, Jeremy Cronin illustrated the point by citing the example of one of his parliamentary colleagues:

"... there was an older African woman from a rural area, an ANC MP. She lives in one of the parliamentary villages. What happens in these circumstances, because she is the one resources person now in her extended family, is that all the grandchildren get sent to stay with her in the parliamentary village and they get sent to school in and around Cape Town. So its not just her that has tenuously joined the new elite, but it ripples down to the grandchildren, who now have an option of escaping the marginalisation of some ex-bantustan area and schooling for at least a few years in Cape Town".

The death threats directed at Thandi Modise, an MP who had the temerity to challenge Winnie Madikizela-Mandela for the leadership of the ANC Women's League during the League's 1997 conference help to confirm the zero sum quality of leadership contests around messianic and authoritarian leadership. Amongst her supporter base, especially strong in the weakly structured branches located in Gauteng's peri-urban squatter camps, Madikizela-Mandela nurtures her popularity with well-publicised demonstrations of personal charity, donating blankets and food in the aftermath of fires and other local emergencies.

In the case of municipal politics, the practice of politically preferential tendering that has now become an accepted convention in all ANC controlled local governments helps to raise the stakes still further. In its Through the Eye of a Needle document the National Working Committee complained of "companies" that "identify ANC members that they can promote in ANC structures so that they can get contracts", suggesting that such interests could even sponsor the mass "buying of membership cards to set up branches that are only ANC in name".

Such charges may be overstated. It is also the case that the ANC tends to denigrate as "careerist" local dissent that may be motivated by quite principled opposition to its policies. However there are identifiable examples of commercial interests attempting to influence the course of internal ANC politics. In the Mpumalanga Parks Board scandal, one of the groups tendering for a take-over of the provincial game reserves made donations to the ANC Youth League through one of its provincial officials, James Nkambule, with the aim of consolidating his control over the provincial executive of the Youth League. More generally, the Youth League has developed especially strong connections with the black business community, owning a substantial block of shares in Tokyo Sexwale's mining consortium.

Rendering personal rivalries more complex is the extent to which they can sometimes align competing groups along racial or ethnic faultlines in the party's social following. In the Western Cape, a province in which factionalism is believed to be especially entrenched at branch level, the rivalry tends to be between Africans and coloureds. In Limpopo province, premier Ngoako Ramathlodi's opponents in building their following in the late 1990s exploited the feeling that Venda and Shangaan speakers were either inadequately or, alternatively, disproportionately represented in party structures and public office.

The role of patrons in activating support at a branch level was illustrated in 1998 with the emergence of the United Democratic Movement (UDM). In its strongholds around Cape Town, Umtata, and Richmond, the UDM was initially built upon the whole-scale defection of certain ANC branches in response to the new allegiances of local notables. Recent housing scandals in Gauteng involving local government councillors and officials using their power to allocate "RDP" dwellings to kinsfolk and friends supply an indication of the kinds of exchange commodities that may provide the currency for certain kinds of patronage.

Even so, and despite the ANC's own contentions about the spread of factionalism within the movement, there are structural limitations to the degree to which patron-client relations can influence South African politics. Patron-client relations are likely to be most prevalent in situations of high degrees of localised inequality in which landlords expect political loyalty from tenants and wage labourers and in which the state has at best a weak local presence.

A rough parallel to this sort of relationship may exist between South African rural chiefs and households dependent on access to communal land. But in any case few households are wholly dependent on land. In many developing countries in urban areas, patrons play a positive role in "linking lower status individuals to national institutions, by-passing rigid bureaucracies". In the South African context, bureaucracy has unusually extensive penetration for a developing country: to cite a key example, a universal system of pension cover has existed for four decades. In a context in which citizens derive their benefits from the bureaucracy directly the roles that patron "brokers" can play are limited.

To judge from the assertive and critical audiences ANC local government candidates confronted in the 2000 local government elections, even in very poor rural areas, the deferential attitudes to elected officials one would expect in a patronage system are exceptional rather than normal.

ANC leaders hope to discourage the spread of factionalism through invocations of an idealised selfless "new cadre". But those of its policies that strengthen vertical or top down relationships of power within the organization are likely to strengthen its hold rather than weakening it. The establishment of a national deployment committee was meant to ensure that the appointment of senior elected officials such as provincial premiers or mayors would not result in "the emergence of a corrupt mafia-type phenomenon".

In the wake of the bitter internal leadership contest in Gauteng in 1998, ANC constitutional strategists were determined to prevent "no holds barred struggles for ANC leadership on the part of opportunists who were interested only in personal material gain at all costs". In his report at Stellenbosch in December 2002, the ANC secretary-general, Kgalema Motlanthe, admitted that the committee had made some very questionable decisions, especially with respect to mayors in major cities, and that, after NEC members had raised doubts about its integrity, the committee's operations were halted.

Rank and file receptions of leadership's exhortations of good behaviour are likely to be somewhat cynical given continuing evidence of high level toleration of corruption: the "rehabilitation" in late 2002 of Tony Yengeni while still facing charges related to the arms contracting scandal is a case in point.

Yengeni's recent career supplies a telling instance of the kind of cronyism that the ANC leadership professes to deplore. His publication during 2001 of a series of full page newspaper advertisements protesting his innocence in receiving a discounted vehicle from one of the arms contract bidders was paid for by his friend, Mcebisi Mlonzi, the CEO of the Zama Resource Corporation, a consortium that had recently won a controlling interest in the former state forestry corporation, after making a R50,000 contribution to the wedding festivities of ANC Youth League executive member and top civil servant Andile Nkhulu. Yet by the end of 2002, though still facing trial, Yengeni's restoration to the group of middle echelon leaders who appeared to enjoy favour within the presidency was signalled by his appointment to the NEC mission that was dispatched to the Eastern Cape to restore order after disputed provincial ANC elections.

Delegates at Stellenbosch responded to such signals by re-electing him to the national executive. In local, regional and provincial and even the national settings in which office holders operate the ANC's principled imperatives to use political power to extend black control of the economy all too easily become conflated with venal rent-seeking as a consequence of the strong social compulsions to reward or repay supporters, friends and kinsfolk.

It remains an orthodoxy within the ANC that the organization is not merely a political party, that it remains a liberation movement. Through this characterization, its spokesmen suggest that it embraces a much broader constituency than social cleavage-based political parties and that it retains an intimate relationship with different kinds of organs of "civil society". Today its officials even claim that within its following "the fault lines of the past are starting to disappear", citing as evidence the establishment of new branches in Pretoria's Afrikaans-speaking suburbs.

For certain authorities this diversity means that the ANC must remain a movement of "debate and political discussion". For others it means that such debate must be circumscribed by the necessity to "mobilize and organize all the social forces", that it should be "a broad movement representing a combination of social categories", including the white "middle strata".

This kind of analytical distinction corresponds to the more general academic usage of such terms as "catch- all" parties.

However the ANC in its self-conception as a liberation movement is not merely referring to its broad social appeal. It also assumes that its role continues to be one of liberation, "of Africans in particular and black people in general from political and economic bondage" and that this goal depends upon its own efforts to transform government institutions and to re-organize economic life.

Given the likelihood of resistance to such efforts, as the authors of a 1998 discussion paper noted, the "National Liberation Movement" would have to extend its influence "to all levers of power: the army, the police, the bureaucracy, intelligence, the judiciary, parastatals, and agencies such as the regulatory bodies, the public broadcaster, the central bank and so on". Deployments of ANC personnel to senior posts within such agencies were needed to "counter the influence of the former ruling class" that still "predominated in the civil service, in the economic sector, in the media". In such aspirations, the ANC has a hegemonic or absolutist conception of politics, in which the "mission of the party is to realize a social order revealed to leadership", in which the "party is the highest value excluding state, nation, family or other social group" and in which "formal government is merely an instrument of achievement".

But in its heroic projections of its national revolutionary mission there is an increasing air of artificiality. Though party ideologues like to fulminate against the strength of "counter revolutionary forces in the economy, civil service, media, courts, etc", their protestations look increasingly far fetched in a context in which, for example, sixty per cent of public service management is black and recently appointed.

Did the audience in Nelspruit really believe ANC notable Dumisane Makhaye when he told them at the provincial ANC meeting that "our enemies have spent sleepless nights plotting our undoing... now and again the enemy carries out counter offensive attacks against us using the counter revolutionary network it has built...". Unlike the hegemonic organizations of the African one party states and Eastern European administrations that hosted the exile leaders of Mbeki's generation, the ANC has to limit any absolutist inclinations it may have within the boundaries set by liberal democracy. As its own official programme suggests, "any legal and robust (though broadly speaking counter-revolutionary) expression of the real contradictions in society... should be treated as legitimate expressions" (my emphasis).

Though ANC leaders resist the suggestion that their organisation has become increasingly oriented to the demands of electoralism and parliamentary politics - hence the efforts to encourage community development undertakings by branches - increasingly the behavioural characteristics of such a formation are evident. They are observable in the predomination within the party's leadership structures of MP's and cabinet ministers, in its occupation of the central terrain in the ideological spectrum of South African politics, in its insistence on its prerogative as the elected government to make policy by itself rather than conceding the corporatist claims of its trade union ally, in its efforts to curtail inner organisational democracy, and finally, of course, in the increasing tendency for its activist membership to become preoccupied and animated by the competition of rival factions for public office.

Factionalism may not be an attractive spectacle but its emergence within the ANC is an important and, for some observers at least, even reassuring symptom of South African politicians' assumption of habits that are quite normal in the public life of a liberal democracy.