ANC delegates stand as South African President Thabo Mbeki and ANC deputy President Jacob Zuma arrive at tthe 52nd African National Congress conference in Polokwane, South Africa, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007 (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Zemk’ iinkomo magwalandini! That’s an old Nguni adage, urging advocates to show the courage of their convictions. It came to mind as one pored over the policy documents coming up for discussion at the governing party’s policy conference next week.

One such policy document is “Organisational Renewal”, which discusses, among others, the vexing issue of what constitutes appropriate leadership.

This concern is not new, but dates from 18 years ago, when the ANC first assumed political office.

The watershed 1997 national conference that ushered in a generational shift, bidding farewell to the saintly Nelson Mandela while inaugurating the cerebral Thabo Mbeki, was the first to shine a spotlight on the paucity of leadership.

The document, titled “Challenges of Leadership in the Current Phase”, explained: “There are no ready-made leaders. Leaders evolve out of battles for social transformation. In these battles, cadres will stumble and some will fail… personal interests will conflict with organisational interests.

“From time to time, conflict will manifest itself between and among members and leaders.”

Though seized by a sense of foreboding for the future, the new governing party was, nonetheless, still intent on fortifying itself.

The 2001 document, titled “Through the Eye of a Needle? Choosing the best cadres to lead transformation”, proffered the solution to the conundrum.

Outlining criteria for leadership, the document noted: “A leader should lead by example. He should be above reproach in his political and social conduct – as defined by our revolutionary morality. Through force of example, he should act as a role model to ANC members and non-members alike.

“Leading a life that reflects commitment to the strategic goals of the NDR (National Democratic Revolution) includes not only being free of corrupt practices; it also means actively fighting against corruption.”

The authors of the document set high standards, to a point that they, elsewhere in the document, even admit that “in one sense they make it difficult for individuals to ascend to positions of leadership in the organisation”.

It’s like going “through the eye of the needle”, but they were still unrelenting, insisting that “we should strive all the time to ensure that our leaders are indeed made of sterner revolutionary stuff”.

Here is the thing, though: “Through the Eye of the Needle” was adopted by the 2002 national conference and was reconfirmed by the 2005 national general council (NGC) as a guide for electing leaders.

Two years later, however, the Polokwane conference elected leaders whose candidature violated official guidelines. Jacob Zuma was elected president while still facing corruption charges and had just been acquitted of rape. Adopting a policy, in other words, doesn’t guarantee its implementation.

Political expedience has a way of trumping principle. Zuma’s supporters touted his alleged victimhood to Mbeki’s supposed shenanigans as a qualification that cancelled out all his imperfections.

Leadership qualities that previous conferences had identified as a guide no longer mattered – all that was paramount then was the election of Zuma.

But reformers have not given up the fight. The “Organisational Renewal” discussion document continues the fight to reform the 100-year-old liberation movement. The document proposes setting up an electoral commission (EC) that would screen and approve individuals to stand for elections. For one’s candidature to quality, it requires competence and ethical conduct.

The electoral commission itself would comprise ‘‘veterans and other cadres not available for election whose conduct is beyond reproach”. To assist the commission in its vetting process, the document urges the implementation of the 2010 NGC resolution to set up integrity commissions at national, provincial and regional levels.

The purpose of the integrity commission is to “investigate all allegations of corruption, abuse of power and any conduct by ANC members that impact on the image and the integrity of the ANC in society”.

Reformers could be buoyed by the outcomes of the 2010 NGC. The latter resolved to set up integrity commissions, which was a great advance against corruption.

It’s the implementation of the resolution that has been a challenge. Only the Gauteng provincial leadership has set one up. Humphrey Mmemezi, the MEC for local government, will soon tell us whether the provincial integrity commission has any teeth. He has had a string of bad luck recently.

First, he was accused of having splurged on expensive clothes and perfumes using an official credit card, then his alleged attempts to conceal an accident while driving a state vehicle were uncovered.

Accidents are common, but Mmemezi’s attempts to conceal it suggested that there was something amiss. The Gauteng leadership is reportedly planning to haul him before its integrity commission.

The other eight ANC provincial offices are seemingly going on as if the 2010 NGC resolution has nothing to do with them. Should we be surprised that an integrity commission has not been set up in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Northern Cape or Mpumalanga?

Prominent leaders in all four provinces are reportedly embroiled in one or other sort of corruption. We’ve seen the Northern Cape’s John Block in and out of court recently. He’s an accused in a case that also implicates Zweli Mkhize, the ANC’s provincial leader in KZN. But Mkhize, despite widespread reports of an imminent arrest, seems to have avoided a court appearance so far. Mpumalanga’s David Mabuza has been similarly lucky.

Last we heard Mabuza allegedly had R14 million hard cash stolen from his house. Note that Mabuza is not a banker, not even the mashonisa type. How did such a massive sum of cash get to his residence?

We wouldn’t be speculating if an investigation had been carried out of these allegations. But we certainly know of an arrest of a journalist, Mzilikazi Wa Afrika, who broke the story of the horde of gun-toting policemen behaving as if they were arresting a resisting hardened, armed criminal. The grounds for the spectacular arrest turned out to be false. Yet we still have not heard of any investigation of the veracity of the allegations involving Mabuza.

The political careers of Mkhize, Mabuza and Block have continued to thrive.

They’ve all just been re-elected chairmen of their provinces. They won by massive margins and one – Mkhize – was even uncontested. This is worrisome. Delegates to the provincial conferences did not see anything untoward in electing individuals who are either accused or suspected of corruption.

This calls into the question the calibre of an ANC member. In the midst of celebrating the registration of a million members, it may be worthwhile revisiting the advice of the 1985 Kabwe Conference: “The strength of a revolutionary organisation lies not only in numbers but primarily in the quality of its cadre.”

The benefits afforded by quantity are not readily evident.

Though card-carrying, most members are likely to remain inactive in their branches. Roughly 20 percent of the membership is active in any given branch.

These are members who attend regular branch activity, are committed to the party and knowledgeable about its policies. The rest are mobilised and show up when a quorum is required for voting.

Who is to say they know what they’re voting on? It is the quality of the cadre that improves the appeal of the party to the electorate, whereas the excess may actually be responsible for its perversion.

The build-up to the policy conference, therefore, is not promising. Adopting a resolution to form electoral commissions threatens the political careers of many. This explains why it was rejected back in 2005. It’s unlikely that the candidatures of some of the recently elected provincial chairs would have been approved had they been subjected to an electoral commission vetting process.

There may even be more among the delegates next week who would not pass “Through the Eye of the Needle”, who have one eye on a leadership position some time in the future. Why would they nullify their leadership prospects by agreeing to form an electoral commission?

That said, parties are capable of self-reform. The impetus, however, often comes from outside. Reforms are a reaction to a peril that threatens the survival of a party. The dramatic electoral drop in the 2009 elections, especially the notable support gained by the newly formed Cope, was such a threat to the ANC.

It prompted the 2010 NGC to adopt a resolution to form integrity committees and nudged the party towards revising its deployment policy. Local party officials, despite severe resistance, are now barred from holding municipal positions simultaneously. Enforcing the policy is a challenge, but its introduction was a telling advance towards municipal reforms.

Now the governing party goes into the 2012 policy conference without any immediate threat. Cope has shrunk.

Only the strength of their conviction will see the reforms through. Zemk’ iinkomo magwalandini!

n Ndletyana is head of Political Economy Faculty, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra)