Sunday, 29 April 2007

The challenge of proactively managing the succession process

The second of two blogs on who the next president of the ANC (and, by extension, the next president of South Africa) will be and the related selection process.

The succession debate brings the challenges facing the ruling party to the fore in a pointed way. Will the African National Congress (ANC) proactively adapt, or will it let change be an external force that pummels it into a new and better shape? In the long run, willingly adapting will be less painful and traumatic.

As a liberation movement of long standing, the ANC has ways of operating that are distinct from other organizational formations. These ways were particularly effective given the circumstances in which it had to operate and the job it had to do. It was fit for purpose, so to say. The organization was relatively cohesive (avoiding the major splits that debilitated the PAC and the BCM). It endured the decades in exile. It managed the ceasefire and a tricky, violence-beset negotiations process in a deeply divided country. In the first and subsequent national elections it raked in more than the lion’s share of the votes.

But now old ways of doing things must give way to the new. This is so on a number of levels; and so the organization has had to begin operating in various areas more like a political party. It has had to manage the links, tensions and articulations between the political party’s structures and government. Even though the ANC is in power, the party as a distinct structure generates the political mandate, upholds the manifesto and holds accountable its people in government. It is getting to grips with what it means to keep an evaluative eye on government in the light of your manifesto when you are the party in power – and through its imbizos how to do so effectively by drawing branches, broad membership and grassroots communities into such assessments.

Regarding leadership succession processes, the official ANC view – and stubbornly so – is that the old approach to leadership election served the party well enough. In terms of procedure, there is no “leadership race,” at least not so many months before the electoral-year conference; the contest will only occur at the national conference itself. The established procedure also tells us that no one puts themselves forward as a candidate for ANC president; party members implore you to stand as a candidate. In all of this the candidate remains coy, humble and perhaps feigning a reluctance to stand.

But reality has intruded; and, as usual it is messier than we like to think. Firstly, there are significant shifts in the human factor. Far too many comrades do not place great store on the idea of standing back until you are deployed or until someone divines that you have certain goals and aspirations about leadership combined with the relevant abilities. Such comrades are not shy about wanting to fast track their chances of ascending to their desired leadership role. Indeed, they feel liberated enough to drop clear hints about their outstanding leadership capabilities and how ready they are to serve the party and the country at higher or the highest levels. Their stance is a far cry from the veterans of the struggle – the ones who are remarkable precisely because they generally subjugated personal and family needs to the demands of the struggle and never blew their own trumpets when the filling of elevated positions was at stake. For many, this newer phenomenon – what some have described as careerism linked to the seductiveness of power, status and influence over budgets – goes together with attaining and enjoying freedom and sharing in the fruit of liberation. It is part of the normalization of society.

This personal/human dimension needs to be overlaid with another aspect: the reality of difference and the emergence of distinct interest groups in the ruling party. Fighting a deadly enemy unites people; it is easy to be seamlessly cohesive in relation what you are "against". However, defeating the enemy – and facing the question of what you are “for” – brings many deep and implacable differences to the fore in a very pronounced way. In today’s ANC, for example, there are differences on the role of business in society, on how poverty should be tackled, on whether the power of provinces should be boosted or diluted and on how race should be handled. In this context, one can see how these elements combine: individuals who want to be in the highest posts possible and certain groups that are looking for a powerful or potentially powerful leader to spearhead their agenda.

Within this reality we have the ironic situation where there is - officially - no succession race underway but where groups and individuals are working flat out on campaigns to determine who will (and who will not) be the next ANC president. This messy situation is having a variety of corrosive effects on the ANC and its effective functioning as South Africa’s leading progressive party. Consider these examples, all linked directly or indirectly to succession-related infighting and rivalry:
- The situation is leading to policymaking and leadership paralysis in certain areas. In many provinces, and in a good number of municipalities, projects and policy initiatives have been shot down for the simple reason that they were being proposed by a person viewed as being from a rival camp.
- Mistrust and suspicion is rife. Comrades and colleagues generally seem inordinately anxious to know whether one is positive or negative toward either current ANC President Thabo Mbeki or Jacob Zuma. Many ANC officials working in government - where various interest groups have little knots of supporters - feel it is better (safer, more prudent?) not to express a view on the succession debate.
- The contestation is playing into - and complicating - other social fault lines (race, ethnicity and gender), with deleterious consequences. In the Western Cape, the most powerful ANC leaders of African and coloured origin don’t work together even though such co-operation is the ANC’s only hope for advancing positive social change in that province. In KwaZulu-Natal, we see a rise of small but vocal pockets of activists who espouse Zuluism - the notion that “I am Zulu first, South African later”. With regard to gender, the position is direr. In her book, The Kanga and the Kangeroo Court, Mmatshilo Motsei argues that the complainant in Zuma’s rape trial is a person “caught in the crossfire of the nation’s succession battle”. As the process unfolds, Zuma is under pressure to define his attitude to women’s rights while the ANC Youth League has issued veiled warnings that it will closely watch to see that the ANC’s strong commitment to advancing women into top roles does not play too strong a role in the succession debate. The struggle for women's rights and gender justice is hard enough; but now the real issues of gender, women's rights and women's leadership are becoming entangled in claims of conspiracy and suspicions of a utilitarian approach to gender issues.
- Policy discussions are being downplayed in favour of mudslinging, the digging up of scandals and some dirty play. We have seen basic gender issues mystified, the anti-corruption fight being distorted, masks being worn instead of candid engagement and, of course, the hoax e-mail saga.

It is in the light of this that the movement should consider adopting a different approach. It should accept that a good number of party members might wish to throw their hats into the ring for the presidential race. It should accept that such persons, or at least their supporters, might want to mobilize support for their candidacy.

It should permit free discussion that would include motivating why a particular person would be good for the growth and future of the organization. It should create a climate where such support for a particular candidate is not necessarily viewed as hostile to or a declaration of war on another presidential hopeful.

The ANC should allow a process in which a person may announce themselves as a candidate for the presidential election a good seven or eight months before the actual election takes place. Also, it might consider a process where a leadership discussion and several leadership conferences are held before nominations are opened. Such events could explore the ANC’s present and emerging leadership needs and translate such into key criteria for top leadership. Linked to this, it could require that those submitting a nomination make a formal submission which sets out how a particular candidate being nominated meets the criteria. Branch and regional endorsements can still be part of the process; candidates can be required to obtain such endorsement either before or after such nomination.

Being more open about the existence of succession fever will allow the party to manage the process through the use of ground rules for campaigning. Nominated candidates could be required to sign-off their acceptance of such ground rules. Thus, those who are nominated will be aware that, while they may campaign fervently and even aggressively, they may do so only in ways that are acceptable, ethical and line with certain principles espoused by the movement. Less mud, more substance! And they will know that, sooner or later, their behaviour will be scrutinized and examined by party colleagues, the media and the wider public in the light of agreed rules of play.

Of course, no-one is suggesting that making such changes as discussed will be easy-peasy for the ANC. Apart from anything else, it will involve giving up the noble ideal about the altruism of leaders in its ranks and conceding that, these days, individual commitment is not as pure and simple as it used to be. It will entail admitting that the needs and aspirations of ANC members are shifting and that not everyone accepts that individuals should be totally subsumed within the collective. But the ANC will find that the gains made are worth the pain. For example, an above-board electioneering process managed by an explicit code of conduct for campaigning will reduce or minimize damage to the organisation caused by “underground” fights over who will be party boss. The other benefit would be that discussion over leadership - leadership qualities and capabilities as well as norms of democratic contestation for leadership power – would be deepened.

Tussles for leadership need not be divisive, destructive, toxic, debasing and damaging to a political party’s credibility – succession and changes in top leadership can also be managed in ways that are good for the party and take democracy forward.

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