Thursday, 4 December 2008

DA recruitment of parliamentarians steams ahead

With all eyes focused on the ANC and its breakaway child, we sometimes forget to track moves within interesting other parties such as the Democratic Alliance.

Some months back the DA startled everyone by advertising for potential parliamentarians – a first for Mzansi. In an advert that was bold and (at least for other parties) provocative, it called for dynamic people who identified with the DA to apply to be considered to become parliamentarians.

Many sloggers and some stalwarts in the party resisted the step (I believe), but Zille stared them down and insisted it was the way to go. Her approach - it seems - is that, if previous attempts to woo voters and people of substance from the black community through the usual membership drives were largely a flop, the party should try new ways.

The recruitment of parliamentarians through an open competitive process combines the following:

  • For 'dynamic' young black people who are partial to public service, a powerful incentive to get involved with the party.
  • Shortening the path to meaningful and leadership roles in the party for talented black professionals.
  • The prospect of immediate rather than long tem change in the party's profile.

That process has now steamed ahead. With applications closed, the DA has apparently netted a bountiful harvest of would-be parliamentarians.

The candidates have been shunted through an assessment process involving interviews, psychometric tests and other 'checks'. This assessment, and I imagine the production of the short list, was conducted by consulting firm Deloitte. In the interviews, candidates were scrutinised regarding their identification with DA free market philosophy and approach to democracy. They were also grilled regarding relevant skills and abilities.

My information is that the DA is extremely chuffed at the haul. They are crowing about the numbers of sharp, talented and potentially high-impact black professionals that have come on board for the process.

Of course, the party that I've supported for yonks, the ANC, is highly aggrieved about the DA move. They believe advertising for parliamentarians is a regrettable development in politics. They accuse the DA of underhand tactics and of unfairly exploiting the unemployment crisis.

The DA initiative does bring to the fore the tension (and the question of balance) in politics between skills and depth of loyalty. The DA seems to be emphasizing the former. Just as in an arranged marriage the idea is to find someone with good qualities and possibly the right genes (and bank on the fact that they can learn to love you), so the DA believes that deeper emotional bonding between party and talented potential leader can come later.

Although the ANC would state that its expectations of representatives include leadership, policymaking and oversight capabilities, the ANC appears in practice to emphasize depth of loyalty.

It is true that, in the old days, when the ANC used the term 'tried and tested' to describe a leader, it referred both to devotion to the party, as well as to effective and tireless service, organising ability, sound understanding of strategy and an ability to enrol new members.

But there is no evidence that this high standard of leadership was not applied when filling the many spaces in national and provincial parliaments. In all likelihood, it would have been too high a benchmark for that purpose.

While many leaders came from the ranks of 'tried and tested' cadres, some got into parliament iprimarily on the basis of inclusiveness, floor crossings manoeuvres, the give-and-take of local list processes and the war games of poaching leaders from other parties.

The ANC shies away from assessing performance of parliamentarians – a step that would foreground the importance of skill and capability, and would create a platform for more focused and result-orientated skills enhancement. However, indications are that such an assessment is far too sensitive. Barely concealing their resistance, many politicians who might be the target of any proposed performance assessment will ask: Who will undertake it, (even if outsourced) who is likely to exploit the findings, how will data be managed and secured and who has the credibility to lead such a process.

And so the question is left hanging: how can the capabilities of parliamentarians be improved so that (a) they have the neccesssary skills to complement their commitment to a political party and (b) they serve democracy and the public interest better?

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