[DEBATE] : Powerless in the corridors of power
rangreen at sn.apc.org
Fri Jun 23 14:05:36 BST 2006
You won't hear it on the SABC...
Posted to the web on: 23 June 2006
Powerless in the corridors of power
Vukani Mde and Karima Brown
THE battle for the soul of the African National Congress (ANC) is a red herring. To judge by
the experience of the past 10 years, the ruling party is no longer the site of power that it
used to be. The real battle is the one for the state. No doubt political influence in the ANC is
still heavily contested, and the current controversy around the leadership succession is one
example of this. The ANC commands 70% of the electorate. It is a social movement whose
tentacles reach into every area of public life. It also commands an historical legitimacy that is
the envy of all opposition parties and lesser liberation movements on the continent and
beyond. Even its allies, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of
South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), have launched discussions that focus on how they
can "recapture" the ANC for the interests of their constituency.
But the nastiness of the ruling party´s succession tussle is, in fact, proof of the ANC´s
declining power, especially in its ability to determine government policy. No longer is control
of the ANC an end in itself. The real prize is the state as both the centre and dispenser of
power and patronage. The nature of the state - not the personality of President Thabo
Mbeki - lies behind complaints by the ANC´s allies over the centralisation of power in the
presidency. SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin recently observed that at least
half the succession problem was about an overconcentration of power in the state, and
especially in the presidency.
While criticism of the "imperial" nature of the presidency may be overstating things, that the
state has usurped a role that once belonged to the ANC is not the fevered imagining of the
The past 12 years contain many examples of policy about-turns, engineered within
government before being canvassed for in the policy-making forums of the ruling party. The
Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) macroeconomic strategy is a case in point.
Hastily put together by government economic departments working with consultants
seconded from multilateral institutions, Gear represented a paradigm shift in the economic
thinking of government and the ANC. Irrespective of its merits, its introduction needed the
crucial buy-in of the ruling party and its allies. Its failure to deliver on some of the more
extravagant promises is in no small part due to its undemocratic birth.
More recently, the ANC national executive committee reportedly was given less than an hour
to watch and examine a slide presentation of Asgi-SA, a major government economic
initiative. No doubt the complexities of a developing modern country are such that
governments at times make adjustments and even wholesale U-turns on policy. The ANC,
and more so its allies, cannot expect to micro-manage a democratic government in its
everyday functioning. Nor is it desirable to fetishise the democratic process to the point
where paralysis sets in, as government finds itself unable to act for fear of leaving behind its
However, what has occurred over the past 10 years is, many in the party feel, tantamount to
a declaration of independence by sections of government, particularly those responsible for
the economy. In its own internal reflections, the ANC acknowledges this and the
consequences it has for democratic accountability and party oversight.
Party critics say this trend, coupled with the simultaneous incapacitation of the party´s
internal policy formulation processes, has led to an ANC that looks increasingly like a
division of government.
ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe has even said the tripartite alliance is an "alliance
of nongovernmental organisations" that, at best, could only make recommendations to
government, but not control it. The alliance, he suggested, was therefore a lobby that could
queue up with other interest groups to get at senior government functionaries and engage
them on unemployment, monetary policy and other key economic portfolios. Thus, dragged
hither and thither by its own government, the ANC has become a policy chameleon.
While it is all too easy to identify "combatants" who lead or belong to various factions in the
ANC in order to show that there is a fight over control of the party, the battle for the state is
not as easily identifiable, hence the absence of big newspaper headlines. It is hard to call its
final outcomes, or even to know whether it is likely to ever have an outcome. But we can see
glimpses of it in the skirmishes that do sometimes spill over into the headlines.
It is in Judge Sisi Khampepe´s commission over the mandate and location of the Scorpions.
It is in the recent purges of the domestic intelligence service. It is the attempts to "transform"
the judiciary. It is there in the current furore over the alleged political manipulation of the
To conservative lobbyists, the further the distance between the state and party the better.
Business, in particular, commends Mbeki´s ability to ignore the unions, communists and
even the ANC in pursuit of "sensible" economic policies.
But there may be two immediate problems with the creeping "independence" of the state.
First, such "independence" extends beyond economics, sensible or otherwise. Mbeki´s
government has pursued inexplicable and bad policies on HIV/ AIDS, and a fruitless
diplomatic strategy in Zimbabwe. On both these issues the ruling party has deferred to the
Union Buildings, even when it was clear that government was hurtling in the wrong direction.
Second, to whom is the state accountable? No one, if you consider that the very concept of
a "state" is amorphous and refers loosely to a discrete set of institutions defined by ever-
changing power dynamics. Political parties on the other hand - while imperfect, power-
hungry and subject to the whims of politicians - are accountable to their electorate. For the
ANC, that means the 70% of voters who back the party, but are sometimes puzzled at what
government does in its name.
Mde is political correspondent. Brown is political editor.
Johannesburg, South Africa
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