ANC should see public office as a civil service

COMMENT

The ANC should change how it sees offices held by elected party officials and those deployed in the state from being centres of power to centres of service. This could help the party break some impasses in the contestation for Cabinet posts before and after the national general elections in May.

The relationship between party and state has been one of the major political problems the ANC has grappled with since coming into power in 1994.
Nothing has demonstrated this more than deployment to office and managing relations between the party and its deployees in the three spheres of government.

As a parliamentary system of democracy, South Africa derives its executive arm of government from the majority party in legislative houses or municipal councils. That means parties are central in determining access to public office.

Two approaches have been used in the ANC since 1994 to deploy candidates to executive positions. One has been to draw from the wider base of ANC members and another has been to transfer party leadership roles from regional to national structures in corresponding roles in government.

Drawing from the wider ANC membership base could result in the deployment into executive offices within government of members who did not necessarily hold powerful positions in the party simultaneously. In a province, for example, one could have a premier who was not necessarily a chairperson. It did not necessarily follow, in practice, that the chairperson of the party became the premier.

The challenge with deploying people who did not have corresponding leadership positions at a party level was that it gave rise to what became known as two centres of power, among other things. For this reason the party resolved at its elective conference in Polokwane in 2007 to “rectify” this.

Granted, centres of power in the policy lexicon of the ANC are much broader than positions held at party and state level. They include the commanding heights of the economy, society and the international political economy.

But part of the practical way in which centres of power were conceptualised was aiming at ensuring harmony between party leadership roles and roles in government. As such, there was a concerted effort, especially after Polokwane, to ensure that candidates for premierships and mayorships were drawn from the provincial and regional leadership of the party, as happens particularly with the president and deputy president positions nationally.

The difficulty with this is that the electoral system of the ANC is not aligned with its aspirational values. Anyone skilled in lobbying, manipulation and resource mobilisation can work the system to favour them and their faction to lead the party. Competence and strategic alignment with values are generally ignored. Through the Eye of the Needle, a 2001 ANC national working committee document, is generally read ahead of elective branch general meetings merely to tick the right boxes, not as prequalifying criteria for those running for office.

If its electoral processes do not result in the best members of the party winning elections and leading the party, there is no need to commit to having those members lead in government willy-nilly.

Besides, the problem with two centres of power is the concept itself and how those elected to party and government offices see their roles, not reality per se. In cases where having two centres of power was an issue, it was mainly a result of the failure of those holding party offices to micromanage those in government offices.

Although the dominant message in the Polokwane conference resolutions and the discussions at the policy conference were about the ANC regaining lost ground as a strategic centre of power, nothing in ANC policy implies that those occupying party positions had a monopoly of wisdom in interpreting party policy.

The real contestation has been over the prerogative to dispense patronage rather than implement the party’s manifesto or policies. Party leaders did not see themselves as having been honoured to serve the party by being elected to office. They saw themselves as the ultimate bosses in regions, provinces and national government.

In some cases, those deployed simply obliged or took exception to the micromanagement, resulting in internal battles which crippled the affected administrations as not only political but also administrative leaders.

When leaders regard themselves as servants, there is no problem because that is preferred to the two-bulls-in-one-kraal conceptualisation of two centres of power.

Ongama Mtimka teaches trends in contemporary South African politics and political dynamics in the department of political and conflict studies at Nelson Mandela University. These are his own views.

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