The Paradox of Democracy Inside the ANC

By Ibrahim Steyn · 17 Oct 2008

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Protagonists of Jacob Zuma describe the ANC’s 52nd National Conference in Polokwane as an historic moment in the life of the organisation intended to hand back power to the masses over its body politic. Democracy inside the ANC had to be extricated from the strictures of the authoritarian bureaucratic style of politics personified by Thabo Mbeki.

However, as already observed by many analysts, the recent political parlance and practice of the high ups in the Zuma camp have cast aspersions on the veracity of their political agenda. And whilst their outlandish behaviour might not have had any significant impact on the support base of the present incumbents, it has legitimated Mosiuoa Lekota’s breakaway threats. His initiative centres on a counter claim that the tenets of our constitutional democracy are being endangered by the “political lawlessness” of key actors in the Zuma camp. But, questions are also raised about the democratic credentials of the main actors associated with this initiative. For example, analysts have second-guessed Lekota’s political demeanor during his tenure as national chairman of the ANC and implicated him in Mbeki’s authoritarian bureaucratic style of rule. 

When read together, the two narratives profile the contentious discourse about the relationship between politics and law. The Zuma project, for example, is ostensibly about returning control of the body politic of the ANC to the masses. In pursuance of this goal, and to protect the political image of its charismatic leader, some of the senior players in the Zuma camp have resorted to nefarious tactics of intimidating judges and challenging the independence of the judiciary and the NPA. This has fuelled the backlash by Lekota and company, accusing the present ANC leadership of undermining state institutions and therefore threatening democracy. 

This brings me to the central theme of my inquiry. Does the Zuma project present a real platform for ordinary members inside the ANC to reclaim their popular sovereignty over the body politic of the organisation, and what are the democratic prospects of Lekota’s initiative? On the upside, the Zuma project has managed to profile the conspicuous intolerance of ordinary people with the dry and alienating effects of the representative political system. However, whether it will be able to translate the Polokwane democratic drive into a more participatory experience of democracy for its rank and file is cause for debate. 

The fact of the matter is the key players on both sides of the contest are steeped in the ANC’s authoritarian style of politics. Despite the ANC’s radical talk of popular democracy and people-driven transformation, it espouses a hierarchical and a highly institutionalized relationship between the rulers and the ruled. In line with the liberal paradigm, representative democracy is seen as the highest point of political achievement. Leadership and representation is privileged over the spontaneous actions of the masses. The masses and the ANC membership in general, are expected to toe the party line and not to be too critical of leadership and party decisions. 

For example, both Zuma and Lekota were part of the Mbeki leadership that cowed the ANC’s alliance partners into accepting GEAR and labeled as ultra-left those opposed to the ANC’s economic vision. More recently, ordinary members have questioned the logic to recall Mbeki and questioned the extent to which ANC branches were consulted. Similarly, the country is plagued by political fisticuffs for power between Zuma and Mbeki loyalists with little or no regard for the views of ordinary members. Those who are perceived anti-Zuma have to endure all sorts of names -- right wing, counter-revolutionary, reactionary, charlatan, etc.           

Meanwhile, the ANC’s supremacy to leadership, the practice of democratic centralism and the notion of vanguardism leave very little room for popular participation outside the ANC.  Popular influence in decision making on public matters are heavily skewed to party activists inside the ANC, ostracizing a repertoire of plural voices. The Polokwane conference decision to dissolve the Scorpions is a case in point. It is inconceivable for the 4000 odd delegates who attended the ANC’s conference to have represented the voice of the South African citizenry on this issue. And whilst Parliament, in theory, might have the final say on whether to retain or disband the Scorpions, we can hardly expect the outcome of the parliamentary participatory process to alter the decision of the ruling party. This reality undermines civil society as a space for democratic politics and threatens the democratic promise of the Polokwane conference. 

The evidence thus suggests that whilst "democratic space" might have opened for those at the locus of power, the influence of ordinary members in the politics of the ANC would in all likelihood remain marginal. And as Zuma detractors are being turfed out from positions of power, dissenting voices are being neutralized inside the party and the victorious faction gets to cement their control over the political future of the ANC.

So, would a breakaway party by Lekota and company be able to mitigate the ANC’s democratic deficit? At best, it will enhance the vibrancy of our liberal democratic framework by unsettling the ANC’s electoral hegemony. However, this camp’s fixation with constitutionalism and the rule of law masks the realities of power and politics. Their democratic narrative is predicated on a fictitious logic that equality and rights will evolve into material change. It laces political equality with economic liberalization, which has resulted in a form of democracy that has very little relevance to poor people. In Africa, it has fuelled an exclusionary form of democracy, which largely benefits the aspirations of the upper classes. In fact, this narrative has promoted an indigenous capitalist class and authoritarian political elites on the continent. 

To enjoy liberty is not only to enjoy equality before the law, but also to have the capacities and the material resources to be able to pursue desired courses of action. Political equality, then, cannot be attained without a measure of economic equality, and without it democracy is likely to become a vehicle for the maintenance of elite dominance. 

Meanwhile, given that the actors in this political drama – Mbeki, Zuma, Lekota, Shilowa, etc- are all steeped in the ANC’s political culture, I do not foresee a new political party introducing any new practice to our body politic. Neither would it be able to exploit the existing class divide in party support for the ANC. Research conducted immediately after the 1999 elections found that party support for the ANC has been heavily skewed towards those whose standard of living had increased. Hence, while people will probably continue to vote for the ANC based on the party’s struggle credentials - and in the absence of a credible alternative - those occupying low socio-economic strata are becoming increasingly disillusioned with party politics based on class dissension. 

The political imbroglio in the ANC allows us to revisit and interrogate notions of politics to establish what is considered political and what is not. What is required is a new style of doing politics. We need a form of politics that is genuinely people-centred with a language that appeals to ordinary people. It has to be underpinned by the values of equality, popular democracy and solidarity, and draw on innovative political practices to engage the state. And it has to be grounded in the concrete social struggles of people to give meaning to its content.

South Africa is replete with raw materials for this new style of politics, but is in need of revolutionary activism to process them. In tandem with global shifts in patterns of citizenship participation, we have been witnessing a changing participatory drama in South Africa since the early 2000s, which is playing out on the streets, in squatter camps, informal settlements, neighbourhoods, etc. And whilst frequently criminalized by the ruling party and the state, this is a form of democratic politics that is aimed at reducing the delegation of powers to the political elite and to place in the hands of grassroots citizens more control and decision-making power over issues of public policy. 

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


Rory Short
19 Oct

True Democracy

Right on Ibrahim. Those in the Zuma, Lekota or Mbeki camps are, none of them, true democrats. Firstly they are primarily concerned with themselves but have been persuaded by their own rhetoric that that is okay because their concern is for the people therefore they should get into power because then of course the people are going to benefit.

They do not accept that in a true democracy all the people, not just the political elite who claim to speak for the people, must wield the power through their collective will.

Respond to this comment

14 Jan

True Democracy

It creates a vacum of answers on whether lack of tolerance, not accepting democratic processes and results, etc. reflect or create a platform for a true democracy. The people again organise themselves into formal structures and start to preach the very same principles they defied. Yes it is healthy to have oppositions in terms South African politics, but it should be progressive politics. Currently we should be debating economic policies and implementation strategies. But we are clouded with negative debate with more than 50% of media presenting negative stories instead of what are the challenges that our economy/youth are faced with.

Respond to this comment