CLARION CALL: President Jacob Zuma greets the delegates at the ANC policy conference in Midrand last month. Delegates sought to renew the ANC in the run-up to the partys 53rd elective conference in Mangaung in December. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

how far did the fourth policy conference nudge the 100-year-old liberation movement towards renewing itself? Its leadership intended the conference to be a watershed moment, heralding a break from the past as it gives birth to a new self.

Is the organisation really on the brink of a new dawn, or did it simply emit fleeting, deceptive bright sparks characteristic of umsobomvu – the hypnotic beauty of sunrays that is quickly eclipsed by darkness?

The conference displayed the usual candour that has become characteristic of the ANC, but it’s the next five months, leading towards the 53rd elective conference, that will determine which way the organisation goes.

Organisational aspiration towards constant self-renewal was reaffirmed. Quality of the membership, instead of a massive number of members, for instance, received priority attention.

Interestingly, even Jeremy Cronin, the deputy general secretary of the Communist Party, found the policy conference ill-suited for a thoughtful discussion.

He thought it impossible, and rightly so, to have a meaningful debate among a crowd of more than 3 400 delegates.

Coming from a party that believed small-sized, cerebral membership made for an efficient organisation, Cronin could be forgiven for preferring that policy discussion be the preserve of the few enlightened ones.

It is still curious, though, that Cronin should bemoan mass participation in decision-making.

Remember that the party was among those insisting at the previous elective conference that members regain the right to decide policy, which they charged had been usurped by the leadership in Thabo Mbeki’s ANC. Amandl’ asemasebeni! (power lies in the branches), they shouted.

Cronin is proposing exactly what the party had lambasted Mbeki for. Could it be that Cronin is realising that the responsibility of leadership, which he now shoulders by virtue of the party’s increased influence with the alliance, sits uncomfortably with democratic rituals?

Numbers don’t yield merit. Popularity is not a measure of right. Competence is what breeds excellence. The conference has reverted to the party’s 1985 cadre-development policy, which emphasised academic achievement and self-improvement as a prerequisite for deployment. Having served time in prison may no longer be sufficient to get a job in the government.

The ANC is probably encouraged by its Chinese friends. Their ministers have degrees.

And the Chinese Communist Party sends its best and brightest students abroad for further education to steer their country towards conquering the world.

No-one asks for a membership card for a position that requires an engineer.

In privileging character over volume, therefore, the fourth policy conference is beginning to re-imagine the ANC. It wishes to attract activists or cadres, not just members.

The organisation intends to be discerning of leadership candidates, rather than being open to all on the basis of membership.

Reducing the size of the national executive committee from 80 to 60 and imposing 10 and seven years’ service as a prerequisite for election to the NEC and the provincial executive committee is meant to sift out impostors and mediocre types.

This proposal expresses a preference for a much smaller, but more efficient and functional, organisation capable of fulfilling its transformative mission.

Some members may renounce their membership as they fail to live up to the stringent standards, and others may be discouraged from even joining. Fewer than the present number are likely to remain.

Could this be an admission that the decision to increase numbers was not entirely correct? Did the conference say: “Better fewer, but better?”

Equally significant was the insistence that the conduct of ANC members should not be regulated by a different moral order. ANC members should uphold the same moral code that society holds dearly. This relates especially to corruption.

The proposal is: “More urgent steps should be taken to protect the image of the organisation and to enhance its standing in society by ensuring, among other things, that urgent action is taken to deal with public officials, leaders and members of the ANC who face damaging allegations of improper conduct. The ANC can no longer allow prolonged processes that damage its integrity.”

The intention is that those “found guilty of wrongdoing in other institutions of society should also be subjected to internal disciplinary process… This will send an unambiguous message… that the ANC does not tolerate any wrong-doing, including corruption, among its members”.

This makes forming integrity committees, as was resolved in 2010, even more urgent. The conference reaffirmed the importance of forming integrity committees. Most provinces haven’t even set up the committees.

Gauteng provides an illustrious example. It has not only set up an integrity committee, but the committee is also effective. Humphrey Mmemezi was fired from his job as MEC on the recommendation of the integrity committee.

Although there are murmurs that Mmemezi was an easy target because he had antagonised the provincial leadership, having become a frequent visitor to Nkandla and holding “factionalist meetings under the cover of darkness”, his axing has set a precedent.

Most of the time, politicians are noble with good intentions, but self-interest is never far off in what they do. Self-interest aside, Gauteng’s provincial leadership will be expected to act in the same way should a similar case arise in future. Intolerance of malfeasance will then develop a life of its own.

The fourth policy conference, therefore, represented a movement towards renewal.

Most significant, as noted earlier, is the shift away from privileging an all-inclusive approach towards predicating participation on what each individual adds to the organisation.

This is a massive break from previous organisational practices.

The collective has always been seen as a natural repository of wisdom.

This is informed by African culture. Every individual matters, and equally so. Nothing is more offensive to an African person than not being recognised.

Even the patrician founders of the liberation movement avoided distancing themselves from their illiterate brethren. They considered themselves the ones best suited for leadership, but still insisted on consultations and forging consensus.

They legitimised their elite views through traditional practices and institutions.

They moulded the ANC along the lines of an imbizo, to which all were invited. Every view deserved airing, however ill-considered. Nothing was ever confidential, but discussed openly in public. Confidential discussions suggested ill-intentions.

Why confer privately, if not to hatch plans to harm others? Public discussions denote honesty and goodwill. That is why the ANC, an organisational offspring of African culture, publishes and discusses even the most sensitive issues in public. The organisation belongs to the people, and they should know what has become of their organisation. It is an affirmation of the public orientation of the organisation.

Putting a premium on the quality of a cadre, however, means the organisation seeks to exclude. The people may indeed be equal, but some add more value than others. The new slogan is: “Equal people, but different value.” Being in government demands it. It’s an attempt at adapting to the new environment. But tradition still restrains the scope of organisational reforms.

Take the reluctance to allow aspiring candidates to openly canvass and contest against each other for support among the membership. Self-effacement is highly prized among Africans.

Boasting about how good you are is frowned upon. A leader hardly uses the noun “I”, but refers to herself as “we”. This is indicative of how much solidarity is valued, which was necessary to survive and defeat racial oppression. Numbers generated strength – hence the constant plea for unity.

But tradition can also be invoked to conceal hubris, and some are invented to aid malevolent ends. One such fictitious tradition is prohibiting recourse to court when the organisation fails to afford you just relief. Free State’s Ace Magashule was passionate at the conference in insisting that those who take the ANC to court automatically expel themselves.

Delegates endorsed this view. But this presupposes that the organisation adjudicates disputes fairly and consistently.

It doesn’t. Magashule is a beneficiary of that dysfunctionality.

He was elected chairperson by a conference boycotted by half his executive, and which disqualified a massive number of members.

For a person to insist on serving in the same leadership position for more than 20 years indicates a penchant to do anything to remain in power. There may be something in the allegations that Magashule doesn’t want the court to unearth.

The march towards renewal continues. Whether or not the ANC enters its second century as a renewed organisation will depend on how sincerely it believes in its convictions. Zemk’ iinkomo magwalandini!

n Ndletyana is head of the political economy faculty at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections