11 August 2010
Johannesburg — THE three biggest problems facing the African National Congress (ANC) may be money, money and money. If there were any doubts that the ANC is in crisis, its discussion documents published ahead of next month's national general council meeting dispel them. They talk of "disturbing trends" towards "careerism, corruption and opportunism"; they complain of "divisive leadership battles over access to resources and patronage" and lament "social distance" between "ANC cadres" in the government and voters.
How to respond to these ills will be the most important issue the ANC will discuss at the council. It has moved in a short time from an organisation that discouraged competition for posts, to one in which contesting positions seems almost the only thing everyone does. And, while competition for office in an organisation can, if settled by a fair test of the will of members, ensure that leaders are more accountable, the ANC's contests do little for its members' health: competing factions undermine each other, contests are bitter and some descend into physical fights, losers often claim the winners cheated, winners sometimes try to expel losers.
Many in the ANC know it cannot go on this way and so it appointed a team to investigate the problem; it is this inquiry that produced the documents frankly spelling out the ANC's woes. The obvious test for the ANC is not whether it can be honest about its problem but whether it can fix it. The documents seem unlikely to do that. They want bans on: fund- raising for candidates, campaign material supporting candidates, promising incentives to gain support, attacking rivals, suppressing debate, open lobbying, and using the media to advance campaigns. They want candidates punished not only if they behave in any of these ways but if they do not stop their supporters doing so.
The problem is that it will be much easier to get the ANC to vote for this list than to stick to it. A couple of the proposals may be opposed because they make the same mistake the ANC made in the past - trying to stop normal political activity such as campaign posters or lobbying. But no one will demand the right to buy delegates' support, smear opponents or suppress disagreement. Those who do these things will speak and vote against them at the council while continuing to do them.
That is not the fault of the team that drafted the documents. Any list it came up with would be meaningless unless it was backed by a will at the top of the ANC to implement it - and we don't test politicians' will by whether they vote for nice-sounding resolutions. That said, there is a way in which the council could signal that it is serious about tackling the problem. It could address the root cause of the disease - the role of money in politics.
Twenty years ago, ANC office was a sacrifice - today it is a route to money. The documents note that for some in the ANC, office is their only way of earning a decent living. For others, it is a route to personal enrichment and the status that goes with it. Accumulating money also enables some to spread cash about to win more support, which in turn gets them more wealth.
In a society with huge inequalities and in which our worth is measured by how much we have, this may be inevitable. But that does not alter the reality that it is the relationship between money and politics that lies at the root of the ANC's problem - and causes damage well beyond that: tension between the ANC and the media is fuelled by the fear that politicians want the law to prevent us knowing where they get their money and what they do with it. If the ANC wants to begin fixing its problem, it must signal that it is serious about repairing the link between political office and money.
The documents do suggest ways of tackling the problem. One, that the ANC finds ways for members to earn a living from sources other than politics, seems to be wishful thinking. Another, for an "integrity committee", which will "manage the interests of those who hold office ... and investigate any allegations of improper conduct", is a step forward but will depend on political will. It hints, however, at a third proposal that really would make a difference - forcing politicians and parties to disclose who fund them.
The documents note that the Polokwane conference urged more public funding for parties (which could make the problem worse). But it notes also that the same resolution urges rules that force politicians and parties to say where they get their money. If the ANC acted on this it would allay fears that it is trying to hide its politicians' finances. It would also take a huge step towards solving its internal crisis.
If you want to know whether the ANC is serious about tackling the biggest problem facing it - and our politics - look at whether it backs a law forcing parties and politicians to say where they get their money