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Understanding the ANC’s decision-making practice

Why is Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa not the presumptive successor? The presumption of a deputy president becoming the president was raised, quite firmly, in the run-up to the 52nd ANC conference in Polokwane, says the writer. File photo: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Why is Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa not the presumptive successor? The presumption of a deputy president becoming the president was raised, quite firmly, in the run-up to the 52nd ANC conference in Polokwane, says the writer. File photo: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Published Jan 15, 2017


The party’s political strategies are shaped in a dynamic way, writes Muxe Nkondo.

Does the ANC’s decision-making tradition make the ANC what it is? According to a standard view, the decision-making tradition in the ANC is a complex of shared beliefs, values, and principles that enable the party to make decisions in a changing world and which provide it with directions for how to do its work.

In one variant of this standard view, the ANC’s decision-making tradition is pictured as a text - the vocabulary and grammar which members learn.

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In this view, becoming a member is conceived as political education - to read the ANC’s basic text and make it one’s own.

This standard view asserts that in becoming the carriers of its decision-making tradition, members acquire the basics of their political identity.

The ANC’s decision-making practice provides the resources on the basis of which members assert, question, demand and judge.

But this is not a one-way street: in the process of learning the ANC’s decision-making practice, members affirm parts of it and reject others. We do not just absorb; we transmute and extend and reinterpret, often reconfirming tradition, even as it moulds us.

Even the most cursory examination of the way the ANC’s strategies and tactics over the years were reviewed reveals this. New concepts, newly acceptable forms (to mediate and sustain the “political settlement”, for example), and new rhetorics expressing new ideas abound - the result of the profound alteration which members of the ANC have made to their decisions in the act of implementing them.

Most of this has resulted from political developments (the language of reconciliation, for instance); from changes in political relations; and a host of other factors.

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This is a vast subject but its general outlines are clear: in learning and using the ANC’s decision-making practice, members have an active role in shaping it as they adapt it to new situations, develop their resources, and alter their disposition to suit new purposes. If there is a change in a decision-making practice, members must be actively and openly engaged in publicly reasoned arguments.

Granted, no tradition can anticipate all the conditions under which it is to be applied. Both the meaning of a practice and how to apply it in a given case call for interpretation on the part of the members.

One of the marks of being able to follow a practice is precisely the ability to interpret it when the occasion demands.

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This bears directly on the succession debate in the ANC. Why is Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa not the presumptive successor? The presumption of a deputy president becoming the president was raised, quite firmly, in the run-up to the 52nd ANC conference in Polokwane.

Members of the ANC as human agents, not voting fodder or pawns for election chess players, must be actively engaged, for they not only draw on decision-making practice to form their intentions and enact their actions, but through their activity, ANC traditions themselves are reconstituted.

That is, tradition in the ANC is not only the ground of political activity but is the outcome of political activity.

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The role of agency in the ANC has always shown itself in the phenomenon of conflict and difference.

The party’s decision-making practices are connected activities, not things. What good will come of breaking the presumption? Why does the shift from practice carry such a burden of justification? Why does it need so many considerations to be marshalled in its defence? Why is this practice in the ANC so critical for the democratic order as a whole?

Any action that has costs - and this certainly does - needs to pay its way in countervailing benefits or else the shift cannot be defended. The precise question is: What are the countervailing benefits for going against the presumption?

Certainly, the political value lies in the tally of benefits and costs.

This broadly pragmatic approach to justification is forward-looking in contrast to the backward-looking recourse to obsessive reliance on manipulation and patronage.

Decision-making practices in the ANC, like in any mature democratic organisation, provide the ground of plausible belief about the likely course of the future as the past, though not final knowledge.

Tradition is here elevated to the psychology of credibility. It is a principle that determines ANC members to expect the same for the future, except when extraordinary circumstances call for the creative imagining of possibilities, which make them act in a more intense manner than members of other organisations not attended by the same tradition.

Pragmatism - the focus on democracy and consequences as the crux of political value - is the foundation on which decisions should be based, not self-serving interests.

Pragmatism is on a different plane from that provided by our egotistic encounters, through our appetites, with South African history.

The ANC has to assess the balance of forces between self-interested comrades and progressives on this issue.

Public integrity must be supported and defended with all the resources available.

In a much larger perspective, the plight of the ANC is the result of a long-term historical trajectory, in post-colonies, dominated by “the politics of the belly” practised by elites with no other strategy than reaping the riches of their country, and of its international linkages, making use of mechanisms of private appropriation of resources using positions of power in the state, and in the process hegemonising “white monopoly capital”.

Underlying the deliberative perspective proposed here is the concern about distorted communication within ANC structures.

Through observations on a range of cases, the goal is to make members of the ANC aware of the often manipulated or distorted nature of communication within its ranks.

The concern reflects an interest in the relationship between power and patronage in the potential for manipulation inherent in self-serving politics, and includes a more emancipatory way of making decisions.

Only when ANC members generally become aware and self-critical of these often subtle power mechanisms, is it possible to develop a deliberative solidarity.

Towards this end, the leadership’s task is to equalise forces of power by open and inclusive deliberative counteractions.

The leaders should see themselves not only as agents of political institutional power, but also as part of the effort to unite the ANC. They therefore should interweave deliberative planning, political education and critical listening as a mode of self-critical deliberative practice within the structures of the ANC.

In the process, the leaders would seek to create spaces and opportunities for more consensual modes of decision-making.

The task would be to assure representations of all major points of view, equalising information among ANC members, and creating conditions within decision-making processes so that the force of argument can be the deciding factor rather

than an individual’s power, wealth or status.

For this we need a political culture that thinks and speaks for itself in a community of deliberative practice, one that increases the nation’s capacity for participatory democracy.

* Nkondo is a policy analyst. He is also a member of Freedom Park Council and Council of the University of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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