111212. Chief Luthuli House, Johannesburg. ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe during an urgent media briefing in response to religious leaders warning to “ANC on moral decay” in South Africa. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

One of the ANC’s biggest assets is its commitment to internal democracy. Since the radical changes that took place in Polokwane, leadership contestation has come under huge scrutiny, with many commentators making the mistake of labelling such contestation disunity.

History bears us out that such fierce contestations of views on policy and leadership are not new.

Neither are they visiting the ANC for the first time in Polokwane.

Granted, there are fierce debates raging in the ANC, underlining some differences on tackling the challenges facing the organisation.

Recently, thousands of delegates dealt with pressing national issues as a way of shaping ANC policy and eventually the policies of the government.

There were tensions and hard and robust contestation in the debates.

Throughout the deliberations that the ANC made public, there was an attempt to attribute the policy deliberations and proposals to one or other grouping assumed to support certain party leaders.

Policy deliberations that were contested in an open and democratic manner were reduced through false analysis to proxies for some leadership candidates.

This trend of taking differences of opinion as a sign of disunity has continued to characterise public discourse, especially among the media and ANC detractors, and has been used once again to suggest some deligitimisation of the electoral process because there are isolated cases of branches that may be failing to meet quorum.

The ANC has never made an attempt to hide its problems, nor dismiss them as non-existent.

Instead, with its 100-year-old resilience, the party has found a way of cleansing itself of elements that seek to use the democratic contests over policy or leadership to fan disunity.

Their proxies who sit outside as spectators and label any activity of contestation a sign of disunity will be equally disappointed, as these challenges strengthen the democratic movement. A typical example is the Free State debacle where members who were defeated internally have resorted to the courts.

The ANC is of a firm belief that this is against the principles and rules of internal democracy.

A casual glance at the history of the ANC will reveal that the question of presidential succession in the party is not new. The ANC has never feared the consequences of open and democratic political contestation.

The leadership of the ANC has over the years been held by people from various regions of the country.

The change of such leadership has never taken a regionalist or, more specifically, a tribalistic or racist connotation.

Leaders of the ANC have been removed from office and replaced in various phases of its existence over the past 100 years and at no stage has such removal been linked to a tribal or regionalist agenda.

Not all elections of the ANC leadership were through a no contest or full consensus.

To declare the fact that positions in an ANC region are all contested is a sign of the possible impending “undoing” of the ANC lacks analysis and is fed by the same prejudice that is taking root against the ANC – declaring the expression of diverse views as a sign of disunity.

The ANC, by rejecting lobbying along regional or tribal lines in exercising its internal democracy, does not imply that it is immune to the prejudices of tribalism, sexism or racism that often bedevil society.

It is clear that such prejudices do not form a part of what informs its policy or even practice.

This is, after all, the liberation movement whose leaders died fighting tribalism, sexism and racism in order to defeat the apartheid monster.

It would indeed be tragic if anyone used the name of the ANC to perpetuate a narrow regional, tribalistic or even sexist agenda.

It is a matter that can only arise from ignorance both within and without the ANC from people who misunderstand the legacy of its centenary. While the public is none the wiser about the democratic practices of the political parties represented in our democratic Parliament, the ANC makes its internal democracy open to public scrutiny.

Some opposition party members who are shouting the loudest have not had leadership change in their parties in decades.

Some were not even elected at democratic congresses.

In contrast to that, the public is exposed to the hard debates that ANC members are having internally.

The public will be given a glimpse of the policy direction the ruling party is taking at the congress in a few days as it happened in the build-up to the policy conference.

The public was even given the opportunity to influence these policies and debate them on public platforms.

This – not tribalism, as is being suggested – is the only sin of the movement not obliged to engage anyone who is not its member in this way.

We are clear that contestations by ANC members are healthy and must continue to be robust even as we go to our centenary conference.

This deepening of internal democracy is the best way we can celebrate our 100 years of resilient existence.

* Gwede Mantashe is ANC secretary-general.

** This column has been edited for length.