The modern party political system, for all its claims at being the pinnacle of democratic expression in liberal society, has nonetheless produced the contradiction of a state that stands "above and outside of society" as Hannah Arendt, the esteemed 20th-century philosopher so aptly pointed out. In South Africa, that point is poignantly illustrated by the attempts at deep soul searching that has played itself out at the ANC National Policy Conference in Nasrec over the last week.
The ANC has come face to face with the reality that no matter how noble an organisation or Party's intentions are, the exercise of power and wealth, without the sobering limitations of a deeply democratic structure, inevitably leads to the development and rise of a political class that soon alienates the state and the party from the people it once represented. At the centre of the malaise which currently drives the steep descent of the ANC from a once proud and noble liberation movement to an oligarchic patronage network, sits two critical and historical dead weights.
These are the often used phrase that the ANC is a "broad church" and the contradictory principle of "democratic centralism". These dead weights, which once served as a cover-all to the inherent contradictions of the movement, now appear as oppressive burdens that serve only to deepen contradictions and hasten the demise of the ANC's public stature.
As a broad church which brought together various strands of the South African society in opposition to Apartheid, the ANC was spectacularly successful as a rallying point around which various interest groups could rally, both in the dark days of Apartheid and post 1994. Upon its attainment of state power however, the ability to successfully articulate and deliver practical outcomes to the broad interest groups which flocked to the ANC post 1994 while still delivering to its key support base, the poor and marginalised, was severely constrained.
It is largely the economic slowdown and stagnation, together with the crass mode of accumulation via corrupt and shady deals, which has exposed the ANC and which has forced it to come face to face with the real possibility that it could lose power in the next election. The ANC Policy Conference has tried to grapple with the multifaceted challenges of a stagnant and recessionary economy, increasingly brazen attempts to capture the organisation and by extension the government executive, failure of various levels of government to deliver services spurred on by patronage networks of state looting and a growing discontented society which results in both a rise in political protests and the loss of electoral support.
In doing so, it has maintained the Mantra of both it being a broad church and operating on the basis of central control of the organisation. At times, as it denies the existence of factions and insists that it remains a unitary organisation, it appears as if the organisation is trying to place a square plug into a round hole. The upshot of this blind allegiance to outdated mantras and ideological cul de sacs is that the factions remain active, growing ever more brazen, and based not on issues, but around individuals and the growth of personality cults at the expense of political ideals.
The ANC purports to be an organisation that listens, that is rooted in communities, yet in its political structures, it imposes ideas rooted in personality and individual aspiration.
The rise of personality cults in the ANC has been a direct result of the organisation's own failure to allow organised factions to participate in the life of the organisation. The ANC, by its own admission, views itself as a movement, a broad church, but unfortunately as Leonard Gentle once pointed out; "by definition a movement is heterogeneous, comprising such a range of experiences and organisational forms that no party or single organisation can encompass that range".
Added to the broad nature of the interests represented in the ANC is the reality that the process of policy development requires organised articulation. As Hal Draper pointed out; no matter how class neutral in origin or intention, the needs of society cannot be met without passing through the political institutions set up by a class-conditioned society, and it is in the course of being processed through these channels that they are shaped, sifted, skewed, moulded, modelled and modulated to fit within the framework established by the ruling interests and ideas. This is how the class nature of the state and society asserts itself, even without malevolent purposes and sinister plots."
The ANC is such a political institution and the vacuum that presents itself by the organisation's failure to allow for organised factions to contest ideas within the party results not only in policy confusion, it also ensures that policy is left up to patronage networks organised around personality. The ANC in its discussion document of 2012 prescribes that "Our movement must always be at the centre of civil society groups and social movements that are genuinely taking up issues affecting the motive force and give political and ideological leadership... and to embed the organisation in grassroots "daily struggles for a better life" through "development activism".
Furthermore, it calls for "the creation of organs of people's power" as the primary organisational form for organising community involvement in transformation and development work." It is perhaps in this formulation that the ANC has not only failed to muster and maintain broad support but has contrived to subvert the idea of a broad movement using outdated Stalinist conceptions of democratic centralism. An example of a broad movement that was able to attain political power through the ballot box is Syrizia of Greece.
Instead of insisting that movements must conform to the central authority of the leadership, Syrizia "followed the social movements as it developed and (we) tried to participate in the movement and present (our) views and at the same time learning from it and following its objective rhythms." Aristides Baltas, one of the founders goes on to quote the Spanish poet Antonio Machado who captures the essence of the Syriza approach: "Don't ask what the road is; you make the road while you walk it. "
And this is perhaps the crux of the ANC's failure. It purports to be an organisation that listens, that is rooted in communities, yet in its political structures, it imposes ideas rooted in personality and individual aspiration, rather than being led by active social movements and interest groups who operate not in the shadows of manufactured narratives, but in the daylight of public interest. If the ANC hopes to retain any semblance of its noble history of a liberation movement, and to overcome the characterisation of a state above and outside of society, then the need to restructure its anachronistic ideological organisational structure is an imperative. Sadly, it may have missed the boat.