Democratic centralism in the ANC: iLIVE

30 November 2011 - 13:06 By Lukhona Mnguni, Umbilo, Durban
ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. File photo.
ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. File photo.

It is without doubt that much of the achievements of the SACP have been through influencing dialogue within the ANC. Through the politburo of the communist party, the ANC was able to adopt extensive discussion documents that injected intellectualism within the party.

This was deeply displayed in the years of exile, of course such influence of the SACP died with the passing away of Joe Slovo. In recent times, there is a strong re-emergence of a word that was prevalent in exile within the ANC: “Democratic Centralism”.

History has it that this term was coined by J.B. Schweitzer in 1865 and subsequent to that, every socialist/communist movement adopted it. Lennin is seen as one the people who championed this term to life consistently. 

Even the SCACP constitution adopted at the 7 congress in 1989 stipulates that “The organisational structure of the Party is based on Leninist principles of democratic centralism”.

As one reads this constitution, a clear understanding of how this “Democratic Centralism” manifests itself is acquired. Chapter VII of the constitution sates that “Unless otherwise provided in this Constitution, the Central Committee shall have the same powers as the Congress to direct the work of the Party, determine all questions of policy and to issue binding instructions and directives to all levels of the Party.”

In an open democratic organisation, there is no way that a committee elected by a congress can be given powers equal to those of a congress. There are variant conceptualizations of the term, however with similarity in meaning. This mentality of running the communist party was transported and adopted by the African National Congress (ANC), especially under the leadership of Oliver Reginald Tambo (1967-1991).

It can be argued that, as a tool to lead an exiled mass movement, the centralization of the functioning of the party was a necessity.  The exile environment of a movement that spanned its existence across the entire African continent, from Swaziland to Tanzania, could not be practically expected to carryout democracy as described by Abraham Lincoln that “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

The people had to transfer their powers, views and ambitions into the care of the elected leadership in the 1969 Morogoro (Tanzania) Conference of the ANC. Mobilisation of resources to keep the ANC machinery going was to be of top priority, but the rank and file had to be appreciative and supportive of the National Executive Committee (NEC) and its alliance partners.

Silently, this gave the committee authoritarian rule in how it did things. The office of President OR Tambo was to be the nerve centre of the functioning of the ANC and there were no frequent conferences, as there are today.

In the online page of the ANC, it gives a view that Tambo was only re-elected as President at the 1985 Kwabe Conference. Effectively, this meant that “Democratic Centralism” was at play within the movement, whereby all democratic rights of the ordinary members were handed over into the hands of the then NEC.

In the sense of the SACP Constitution, the NEC of the ANC almost enjoyed the same powers as any conference of the ANC at the time. The running of the organisation was neither transparent nor accountable to the ordinary members of the party.

The running of the organisation was characterised with much needed secrecy, at the time, in order to avoid the leaking of information which may prove to be detrimental to the wellbeing of the party if such information lands on the wrong hands.

Following the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, one would have expected that conventional democracy not only be practiced in the South African context, but also in the context of the party –the ANC. The ANC has faced numerous challenges in its attempt to enforce credibly clean democracy.

This started in the 1991 Durban Conference when a bitter face-off between Thabo Mbeki and Chris Hani for the position of Deputy President of the party ensued, with Walter Sisulu having to come in as the compromise candidate. In the 2007 Polokwane Conference the nation witnessed the vulgarity of power mongering, as Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma battled it out for the Presidency of the ANC and ultimately the control of the party through either faction emerging.

These moments give a lesson on how the liberation movement has failed to transform, significantly, into a modern democratic party. History remains too close and tempting to relive for many of the top leaders in the ANC who are what is normally referred to as “the old guard”. 

This “old guard” shuts space for a paradigm shift and indulges in nostalgia about the past, which hinders the seizing of opportunities of growth and development for the movement. It is in this context that the term “Democratic Centralism” has found its life once more within the ANC. The “old guard” finds it challenging to run a party in a manner that is open, transparent, accountable and free of secrecy.

The danger of this desire is that it also plays itself out in the governing of the state because the ANC has deliberately encroached itself into the state, effectively failing to separate party from state.

This Democratic Centralism in the modern era is also directly/indirectly influenced by the ANC’s association with centralist parties that run their states with an iron fist such as the Communist Party of China and the ZANU-PF of Zimbabwe.

Recently, the policy proposals and utterances of the ANC either through the party or the executive have been pointing at the desire to run the affairs of the state in a centralist manner that has the ANC (i.e. NEC) as the nerve centre.

When the Polokwane ANC leadership came into power, it openly expressed its disgust at the manner in which the media, judiciary and the then scorpions were conducting their business.

Any attempt to hold the state accountable is now seen as an attack and undermining/being ungrateful of the role the ANC government has played in the last 17 years of democracy. Any action to consolidate Civil Society as attempted by COSATU is seen as an antagonistic action against the ANC government.

Any attempt to reveal corruption through whistle-blowers and investigative journalism is met with a heavy tongue of criticism and labelling. Any centralist party/government would ensure that:

1. The media is well under control to underreport misdoings of the government or to report favourably on the acts of government, 2. The judiciary is able to enforce the views of the ruling party and how it interprets the country’s constitution, effectively limiting judicial independence and

3. The law enforcement agencies such as the HAWKS are easily manipulated to conduct enquiries that do not expose the greed and corruption of the ruling elite within the ruling party.

Immediately after 2007 Polokwane Conference, the ANC got rid of the scorpions and replaced them with the HAWKS which have since been said by the Constitutional Court not to be established in the best CONSTITUTIONALLY possible manner. Thus through the HAWKS a low-key law enforcement agency was established according to the needs of the ruling party.

The SAPS crime intelligence boss Lieutenant-General Richard Mdluli’s saga of having compiled an intelligence report about factional dealings within the ANC indicates at how state apparatus is increasingly being used for the benefit of the ruling party, indicating centralisation of state institutions for the benefit of the elite rulers.

The attack on the media by the ruling party has been twofold, through the Protection of Information Bill and the mooted Media Appeals Tribunal. If these two were to be successful in the manner in which the ruling party wants them established, it would effectively reduce the independence of the media and its role as the fourth estate.

Though the Protection of Information Bill does not directly impede the work of the media, it introduces a sizable threat and introduction of paranoia in the media fraternity as to what information published “out of public interest” may be classified or not.

The deterrent factor in this Bill for the media is the possibility of being jailed for 25 years without an opportunity to stand in a court of law and argue that material published was in the interest of the public.

Other available mechanisms to get information such as the declassification process of documents and the usage of The Promotion of Access to Information Act are a tedious process that would slow down the urgency of reporting stories and exposing the mismanagement or squandering of resources by the government which equates to the ruling party. 

In the latest bid to centralise the functions of the judiciary, the executive (which is the ANC) made remarks through its spokesperson Jimmy Manyi that the Constitutional Court and its judgments are going to be placed under review and that "Appropriate mechanisms would also be developed to facilitate regular interface between the three spheres of government to "enhance synergy and constructive engagement among them in pursuit of common transformative goals geared to benefit society at large", Manyi said." (Report by Mail&Guardian)

The reality of these remarks is that, the Constitutional Court has proven to be an impediment in the path of the ruling party and thus a form of coercing this court to tow the party line must be systematically developed. This is the same ANC leadership that had called the judiciary system counterrevolutionary and all other vulgar terms.

If these three objectives of centralism are achieved by the ruling party, then the work of Chapter 9 institutions such as the Human Rights Commission and the office of the Public Protector will prove worthless as no one would follow up on their recommendations.

It can thus be concluded that the notion of “Democratic Centralism” should not have a space in an era of an open democracy South Africa. Democratic Centralism is described by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary to be “a principle of Communist Party organization by which members take part in policy discussions and elections at all levels but must follow decisions made at higher levels”. 

In the South African context it means that, the electorate will go to the polls every five years, ‘public’ consultations will be conducted in policy formulation; however the public must follow decisions made at higher levels. In the context of South Africa the higher level is the NEC of the ANC which then uses its majority in parliament to enact legislation that favours its agenda.

Currently, the reemergence of “Democratic Centralism” within the ranks of the ANC should prove a point of worry for the country, more especially because the executive arm of government and the legislative arm are in bed together due to the proportional representation parliamentary system that South Africa has.

It is only the media and the judiciary that stands juxtaposed to the executive and parliament. Plans are clearly underway to minimize the independence of any institution and run a country that has one nerve centre and one determining central point, which is the ANC.

Caution must be paid to the utterances of “Democratic Centralism” as they manifest themselves in front of our eyes.