Atul Gupta? At an ANC meeting? #WTF?
These were my thoughts when I went along to an ANC meeting at my hood in Parkhurst, Johannesburg and found the middle brother of the clan, Atul Gupta, walking around in green,black and gold as the branch got together ahead of the party's elective conference in Mangaung in 2012.
That was my first inkling of how ANC branches can be captured. The Gupta brothers were recent and ambitious arrivals from India who had clicked that one way to wealth is to join or own a branch. Their capture tricks had just started so I doubted they joined to work in their communities to advance the ANC governing agenda. A similar affliction is apparent across the party although there are notable exceptions. Branches are often building blocks of rich empires now where power is consolidated.
Branches for sale
At the Mangaung conference, as will happen at next year's conference in the Northern Cape, about 4,500 branch members got to choose a future president for the ANC and, still, one for the country. As a dominant party, it is still likely that the ANC president becomes party president in 2019. And so branches are subjects of trade and capture by business interests. They are no longer the building blocks of democracy and popular participation they were when the party was formed and later when it was unbanned.
To survive, and thrive, the ANC needs to find ways to reduce the power of branches and place more power in the hands of people. This will mean taking the big step of electoral reform to allow a system of direct elections of our presidents and premiers.
The existing system has become open to abuse and no number of lifestyle audits is going to fix that. Speaking at the alternative uMkhonto We Sizwe (MK) gathering at the weekend, the ANC and MK luminary, Joel Netshitenzhe, suggested lifestyle audits for party leadership candidates as the most ambitious fix for the governing party. Netshitenzhe said the party should be disinfected as if a dousing in Jik would do the trick.
Nostalgia for a golden age
In the alternative gathering of Umkhonto we Sizwe soldiers at Nasrec, there was a heartbreaking nostalgia for an ANC golden age. This was a time when the ANC was run by selfless leaders who chose lives of sacrifice over personal comfort. It was a time of servant leadership where the idea of a movement working for a "better life for all" was a genuine purpose and not a campaign slogan. MK guerillas were agents to execute a revolution.
This ANC, rooted in and of South Africa, for over a century won mandate after mandate because it was a genuine servant of the people.
But at the weekend, Netshitenzhe said the ANC was floating outside of a new broad front for good governance that was forming to fight corruption. He warned that a "vanguard (party) that can't exercise its vanguard role may be experiencing its death".
For 11 years now, the ANC and now MK have engaged nostalgia as the path to renewal and away from decline and death.
Instead, the party's longevity may lie in rethinking how to transfer power from its branches to the people who are making up the new broad front.