The way in which the ANC elects its president is deeply flawed. It is skewed towards churning out poor-quality leaders and turns members and supporters into frustrated and impotent bystanders.

First, the 4 500 voting delegates who will vote for the ANC president at the party’s December national conference are not representative of ordinary ANC members and supporters, let alone the country.

Every branch has one vote (this rises to two or three if it is a large city branch) at the ANC’s national conference.

Each branch sends one voting delegate (or two or three if it is a large branch) to the national conference to vote on behalf of the branch.

The voting delegate usually sent by the branch is often one of the most senior branch leaders, either the secretary or the branch chairman. The branch secretary or the chairman is usually either an elected representative, such as a mayor, a local councillor or a senior civil servant, or a prominent businessman having dealings with the government.

This means the voting delegates coming from the branches would normally be the ANC’s establishment.

They are therefore most certainly unlikely to be your ordinary ANC supporter: working class, unemployed, or those in economic distress.

Neither are they the type using the lethargic public hospitals, sending their children to ineffective state schools, or one of the majority who daily risk their lives using minibus taxis to get from one point to another.

In fact, there is a deepening social gap between the ANC’s leaders, who in most cases live in luxury far removed from the daily grind, and ordinary ANC supporters and members.

By way of example, this is why the Marikana explosion could happen in Rustenburg, with the ANC’s local (Rustenburg) branch leaders caught off guard (of course the ANC national and provincial leaders were also flat-footed).

Many of the voting delegates from the branches will be conflicted, as they will instinctively vote for the current president or national leaders, on whom they depend for retaining their government jobs and government tenders.

Many will naturally fear that voting for a new president might mean the end of their party and government jobs as councillors or their supply of government tenders.

Voting at branch level for who should be the branch’s candidate for the presidency is mostly by a show of hands, not secret ballot.

It is not hard to imagine that an ordinary member at branch level who votes “against” the presidential candidate preference of the local leadership will be isolated: meaning unlikely to get a job, an RDP house or a government contract.

In the current ANC system, branch membership records are kept by branch secretaries.

This means branch secretaries can conveniently make the membership of members who disagree with their choices of candidates or policies disappear – and so make them ineligible to vote at branch annual general meetings.

Since the branch secretaries keep membership records they could also easily stack meetings with allies whose membership cannot be independently verified.

Audits of ANC branch membership are done by the office of the ANC secretary general – not by an independent outside institution.

If the secretary general is running for re-election, he or she is obviously conflicted.

The real danger, then, is that the sitting secretary general wanting re-election may penalise branches suspected of opposing his or her re-election by finding reasons to make the dissident branches ineligible to vote.

The sitting secretary general running for re-election could also prop up non-functioning branches that favour him or her for re-election.

In the ANC’s internal election process, nominees for the ANC presidency are usually pre-selected by a small, shadowy and elite group.

The ANC’s national deployment committee often plays a key behind-the-scenes role in the pre-selection of ANC presidential candidates, nominees or selection deals.

These pre-selected presidential nominees are then “presented” to the ANC provinces and branches for them to “select” their preferred candidates from.

The idea of deployment committees which exist not only at national level, but also at provincial and municipal levels, undermines the ANC’s internal democracy.

The identities of the elite group that pre-selects ANC presidential nominees and how they arrive at their decisions are covered by a veil of secrecy.

Not only is the group that pre-selects who should stand as ANC presidential candidates too narrow, the choices of presidential candidate nominees “presented” to provinces and branches are obviously far too limited.

ANC deployment committees often pre-select favoured candidates, not only for leadership within the ANC but also for positions at all levels of government and sometimes even tenders.

These deployment committees are often dominated by the faction in national control of the ANC – since the 2007 ANC Polokwane national conference, that led by Jacob Zuma.

In the last local elections, deployment committees pre-selected candidates who would be ANC local councillor candidates and mayors.

Zuma’s inner ANC coalition that brought him to power at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane national conference has now disintegrated.

There is a fierce battle within the now-divided Polokwane Zuma coalition for control of these deployment committees.

Presidential candidates who pre-selected nominees will not make any inroads. This was the case with Tokyo Sexwale ahead of the Polokwane national conference, where he stood as presidential candidate but was not “approved” as a nominee.

Branches and voting delegates were encouraged not to endorse a Sexwale presidential nomination.

The fact that the branch delegates sent to the ANC’s national conference are mostly senior local ANC leaders linked to government or government business means the voices of ordinary members and supporters do not count for much.

Almost daily, we see public protests at local level against poor public services, indifferent public representatives and official corruption. Most of these protests are by ANC members.

One of the reasons for them venting their anger in the streets – often violently – is because they have, as ordinary ANC members, little power in their branches to hold their local ANC leaders, who in most cases are local councillors, accountable through branch meetings.

Some members even vent their frustration about their inability to influence the policies and leadership elections of their local ANC branches by violently attacking local ANC councillors.

The reality is that for Kgalema Motlanthe and the “Anyone but Zuma” (ABZ) campaign to be able to persuade branch delegates not to vote for the incumbent president, they will need to reassure them individually that they will be reappointed as councillors or that their new government contracts will be renewed, even if they are ineffective as public representatives, corrupt or do not deliver on government contracts.

Clearly, the flawed internal ANC electoral process encourages corruption.

The decisions on who should be pre-selected to be nominated for the ANC presidency are made in a closed system, inaccessible to ordinary ANC members and supporters.

The ANC urgently needs to modernise, democratise and renew its internal workings or face becoming wholly ossified.

The elements of such a modernisation programme must include opening the ANC leadership elections so that every individual member or supporter, affiliate organisation or tripartite alliance partner can nominate a presidential candidate. Any ANC member should be able to make themselves available for the presidency.

Nominated presidential candidates should compete at provincial level through competitive elections, in the same way US party candidates compete against each other.

A system could be introduced whereby nominated candidates must be able to have a minimum number of verified nominations – let’s take an arbitrary figure of 1 000 individual ANC members.

The winners of the provincial voting contests should then compete in a national contest.

The presidential candidates should publicly debate their policy positions and then all ANC members must vote in their individual capacity, not through branches. Such a system would be like the US primary system, or the method introduced by the French Socialist Party last year, which gave all members and supporters the opportunity to vote for the party’s presidential candidate.

In such a system, every ANC member should be able to vote in their individual capacity, not through a branch, or through sending a proxy to a national conference.

Zuma’s acumen has been that he knows how to use the current opaque internal electoral system of the ANC to his own advantage.

Furthermore, being the sitting president, Zuma has the added advantage of being able to use state power, institutions and patronage to reinforce his own power in the ANC.

Zuma can use his control of state patronage to sideline would-be critics, opponents and rivals by either barring them from state jobs or contracts, or rewarding them.

In the current internal electoral system of the ANC, even if ordinary ANC members and supporters want to replace Zuma as leader, they will find it an uphill battle.

In general elections, most ANC members vote for the ANC as a movement, not for the individual ANC leader.

Therefore, even if an ANC president is unpopular among broader society, he or she only has to be able to manage or control the internal electoral college of the ANC – and that person will be elected as the country’s president because ANC members mostly vote for the movement, the so-called “collective”, not the individual leader.

The very obvious shortcoming of the ANC’s current electoral college is that it does not measure leaders on their ability to manage the country, government or the ANC.

Instead, it judges them on their ability to reward the ANC electoral college, the party establishment and whether they will be able to ensure influential factions are provided with patronage or at least left alone to accumulate wealth.

This means that unless the ANC modernises, renews and democratises its internal election process, it will produce leaders who will keep the ANC’s establishment happy but who will be ineffective in governing a complex country with complex problems, operating in an increasing complex world.

Clearly, the ANC’s internal “democracy” is dangerously flawed when it comes to the leadership election, and unless the ANC introduces genuine democracy into its internal election process, it will continue to produce flawed leaders.

The big question is at what point the social distance between the ANC’s leaders, whether at branch, provincial or national level, and its members and supporters becomes so deep that the supporters don’t identify with the leaders any more and, as a consequence, don’t identify with the party itself any more, and won’t vote for the ANC any more?

For now, the disconnect between the ANC’s leaders and its ordinary members and supporters has not been translated into the ANC losing elections.

However, the Marikana mine explosion may be the tipping point. It has shown that the social distance between ANC leaders and ordinary supporters may now be so deep that it may translate into the ANC losing votes dramatically in the next general elections.

The Marikana crisis was a manifestation of the social gap between the leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers and ordinary members becoming so great that the miners could not identify with their leaders and trade union any more, and therefore sought new leaders and established a new organisation, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

Clearly, the social gap between ANC leaders and ordinary members has now become such a gulf that many members may not be able to identify themselves with neither the leaders nor the party any more.

A case in point is Zuma’s upgrading of a R200 million compound with taxpayers’ money at his Nkandla homestead, while villagers in the area live in dire poverty.

Yet, astonishingly, the president and “communist” leaders such as Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande cannot see anything wrong with this.

Unless there is change in the ANC’s leaders, including replacing Zuma, the ANC may fragment, just as happened with the NUM at Marikana: we may see more frustrated ANC members standing as independents at local level, breakaway parties forming at provincial level, and more Cope-like breakaways at national level.

n Gumede is author of the recently released bestselling Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times, published by Tafelberg.