Policy Brief 22: Democratic renewal of the ANC

The African National Congress as the ruling party in South Africa continues to go through a series of leadership challenges and a growing loss of faith and support in its traditional support bases reflected in losing 3 major municipalities in the 2017 local government elections. If it is to retain power in the 2019 national elections it will need to self-correct through a series of internal changes. This policy brief explores fundamental democratisation reforms and other alternatives that are necessary for a renewal within the party.


Unless the African National Congress (ANC) renews itself, becomes more accountable, voting in credible leaders, it is likely to lose power in the 2019 national elections.

At the core of any renewal reform must be for the ANC to democratise itself. A governing party which is not democratic cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, preside over building a democratic, inclusive and caring society (Tayeb 1998; Van de Walle and Butler 1999; Gumede 2015, 2009, 2005).

There are some fundamental democratisation reforms that the party will have to introduce if it is serious about renewal. At its most basic, the ANC must become democratic in its internal operations, decision-making and elections. As the governing party, it will have to make its organisational culture democratic, in order to inculcate a society-wide democratic culture (Tayeb 1998; Gumede 2009, 2015, 2017).

Unless the ANC, as a governing party, internalises the values of South Africa’s democratic Constitution in the way it runs and organises itself and government, and in the everyday behaviour of leaders and members, building a quality democracy for South Africa will also remain a distant dream.

 Democratising ANC leadership elections

The ANC will have to change the way it elects its president, leaders, and representatives. The current practice of branches sending voting delegations to vote on their behalf for party presidential candidates must be abolished (ANC 2005a, b, 2007).

A new party electoral system is needed, whereby individual members vote for the party president directly. This will bring genuine democracy to the party, giving ordinary members a voice and stop the manipulation of voting which is at the heart of the rot in the party (ANC 2005a, 2012).

Individual members who vote still will need to be in good standing. The annual membership subscription could be lowered to allow the poorest supporter to be a member. Each member must have the power to nominate a presidential candidate. Voting should be by secret ballot at all times, and every person nominated should be able to campaign – without needing approval from the national leadership.

American or French Socialist Party-style primaries should be introduced into the presidential election campaign, with presidential hopefuls going directly to both the ANC membership and their own supporters, making a case for why they should be elected as president. Groups within the tripartite alliance – trade unions, civic groups, and communists could nominate candidates. A time period could then be set for campaigning and defending manifestos.

Aligning the ANC’s constitution with South Africa’s national democratic Constitution

The ANC must change its constitution, to align it with the national Constitution of South Africa. Currently, there are elements of the ANC constitution which clash with the national constitution, values and decision-making (Gumede 2009, 2015, 2017).

At the moment, the ANC’s culture demands from members to adhere to the party’s constitution, rather than the country constitution. The ANC should embrace South Africa’s Constitution as a social democratic one, which should become the new ideological blueprint for the ANC, replacing its current outdated, confused and rhetorically-loaded Marxist, African nationalist and traditionalist mix bag (Gumede 2017, 2015, 2009 and 2005).

Internal elections must be conducted, decisions made and the behaviour of ANC leaders, members and supporters be in accordance with the democratic principles, values and spirit espoused in our Constitution. The party must enforce leadership accountability, transparency, and consequences for errant behaviour by leaders, and elected and public representatives.

A standard must be introduced whereby leaders found to be errant, corrupt and callous should resign. As governing party, elected and public representatives must at all times govern in the greatest public, national and democratic interest, rather than for a small elite or only party members. The ANC will also have to change its language from the slogan-based apartheid and Cold War one, to one that is more in tune with our technological world, constitutional democracy and fast-changing diverse society (Gumede 2017, 2015, 2009, 2005).

Abandoning democratic centralism 

The ANC must abandon “democratic centralism”; the organisational system whereby decisions are made centrally by the leadership, and every member must unquestionably follow the “line”, should be abolished with immediate effect (Lenin 1921; Sartori 1976; ANC 2005a&b, 2007, 2012; Gumede 2005, 2009).

Democratic centralism was introduced by Vladimir Lenin, in 1921 into the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and all communist parties and African liberation movements of the Left subsequently adopted it as a principle (Lenin 1921; Sartori 1976).

During the liberation struggle, the ANC, like many African independence and liberation movements discouraged internal dissent and criticisms, unless in highly circumscribed ways, lest they expose divisions within the movements of the oppressed, which could be exploited to brutal effect by the colonial and apartheid government. However, this culture of non-criticism, opposition to dissent and differing views has continued (Gumede 2006).

Dissent and criticism must be permitted as “normal”. There has to be a mechanism for members to hold dissenting or minority opinions on all issues – and the right to be allowed to have such dissenting views widely heard among the general membership.

And importantly, an element must be introduced into the ANC’s constitution which allows members and representatives to vote with their conscience. Individual members must be able to petition irrational leadership decisions, secure a hearing with the leadership within a reasonably short period and seek remedy in the courts if they are ignored.

In the ANC, democratic centralism has been frequently abused by cynical leaders who make irrational, self-serving and corrupt decisions, and then expect all members and supporters to follow or support them on the basis that to oppose it, as against the party “line” (ANC 2005a&b, 2007, 2012; Gumede 2005, 2009). Furthermore, errant leaders often hide behind “collective” decision-making, rather than take individual responsibility for wrongdoing.

The lack of tolerance for dissent, criticism and internal opposition, has meant that many conscientious supporters and members have remained silent in the face of wrongdoing, mismanagement, and corruption – allowing those corrupt to get away with it until it snowballs into grand corruption.

 Introducing merit into appointments, elections, and decision-making

The idea of election and appointment by merit should be introduced throughout the party structures. Hard work, honesty and talent must be rewarded rather than uncritical loyalty to leaders, the “collective” and the party “line”. This will usher in new talent, energy and ideas currently lacking in the ANC – and necessary for the renewal of the ANC.

Of course, this should be balanced off by offering opportunities for historically marginalised groups – women, youth and rural members, to be elected to the leadership positions. Importantly, even such affirmative action must be done on merit, talent, and performance – not on rewarding loyalty or patronage.

The current practice whereby members are rewarded for uncritical loyalty, patriarchy, and long struggle credentials is not only wrong, it will accelerate the collapse of the ANC. Continuing on this path will mean that leadership will always be confined to an even narrower, older and out-of-touch small elite, who will eventually die out, and the ANC will die out with them. This has been the case with most African liberation movements, who eventually ossified, lost touch with society and lost power.

ANC structures at local level are the entry points for many ANC leaders. One way to bring a wave of fresh blood to the party is for it to establish a formal process of publicly inviting individuals to apply to become candidates for leadership at the local level of the party. Applicants must then go through a formal process of being interviewed by an interview panel, vetted and their qualifications verified.

This will give the ANC the opportunity to introduce fresh, capable and more honest leadership. All new leadership appointments must go through a formal induction process, which must emphasise training in the key aspects of the country’s constitution, democratic values, and ethics.

 Making the ANC leadership more diverse

Currently, the ANC has a rule that only members who have been active for ten consecutive years can be appointed to the national executive committee. This prevents the entry of new, younger prospects and candidates from diverse class, race and professional backgrounds into the party.

South Africa’s constitution calls for gender equality. In the Constitution, gender equality overrides culture. The ANC adopted a ground-breaking resolution at its national conference in Polokwane in December 2007, compelling 50% representation for women in all ANC structures.  Yet, the gender equality policy has never been implemented.

The 50% principle, if transformed into practice may perhaps be one of the single most effective mechanisms to transform not only the ANC from within, to translate gender equality into the everyday life of the organization, but also of society (Baldez 2006; Bird 2014).

South Africa is a typical developing country with a youth bulge – with young people making up the largest proportion of the society. However, youth are virtually absent from the leadership structures of the ANC leadership. The youth, who are present, are those who are uncritically loyal to the leadership, those who mimic the outdated Cold War struggle language and those who join to secure patronage, typified by the current leadership of the ANC Youth League.

Youth quotas must be introduced – and enforced at all levels of party elections. The age group for being classified as youth to be part of ANC Youth League membership must be reduced to 25 years old or under.

The ANC is increasingly seen as a black organisation only, and as hostile to South Africa’s minorities. The ANC will do well to introduce minimum quotas for minority representation on ANC leadership structures – to ensure the ANC remains ethnically diverse (Carrol 1999; Reynolds 2005; Baldez 2006; Jensenius 2013; Bird 2014).

There appears to be an unspoken rule, that someone from South Africa’s minority communities cannot become president of the ANC. Such a notion must be immediately scrapped, as it reinforces the perception that the ANC is closed to minorities. It also deprives the ANC and South Africa of potential leadership talent, energy and capacity.

More active members

The crisis within the ANC has much to do with many conscientious members and supporters having withdrawn from active involvement in the ANC in the post-apartheid era, to focus on private and professional lives (ANC 2005). Others joined government.

Yet, many over time, wrongly believed that as individual members, they have no impact, and therefore withdrew from active party involvement (Gumede 2005). Nevertheless, this has meant that opportunistic, corrupt and self-interested individuals have stepped into the space left.

Furthermore, ANC members, supporters, and voters have been extraordinarily lenient to the party and leaders in government (Gumede 2017). ANC members, supporters, and voters should end the notion that the leadership is the vanguard, where members, voters, and citizens, wait for the leadership to deliver (Gumede 2017).

The reason for the drift in government is because many ANC members and supporters active in the struggle have demobilised en masse. Many expected that electing an independence government alone is enough guarantee for it to deliver. Ordinary ANC members and supporters must take back the ANC from opportunists, careerists and the corrupt.

Conscientious ANC members must also do more to make the party more accountable, transparent and honest, and to elect more responsible leaders. Members and supporters of the ANC must be less tolerant of non-delivery, mismanagement and autocratic behaviour by party leaders. Conscientious leaders, members, and supporters must create a strong counter-balance, in the form of a formal pro-democracy, accountability and anti-corruption lobby, which must ensure that democratic leaders are elected, leaders behave ethically and policies are not corruptly captured.

Partnering with civil society

Progressive South African and global civil society partnerships with the ANC, played a key role in toppling the apartheid government. The United Democratic Front (UDF) during the 1980s was one of the world’s greatest, and most successful mass civil movements. In his report to the ANC’s 2002 National Conference, Kgalema Motlanthe conceded that the ANC had not prioritised its relationship with the “various independent organisations and forces that constitute progressive civil society”.

Motlanthe said the ANC “has also been found wanting” in the task of building “a partnership between the state and civil society at all levels” (Motlanthe 2002: Paragraph 161). The ANC will have to bring in civil society into its decision-making structures, become more open to policy input from civil society and give civil society bigger power in determining ANC leadership elections (Makhura 1999).

Yet civil society involvement is crucial for the democratic renewal of the ANC. It can provide the ideas, leaders and policies for democratic renewal along with the monitoring, evaluation and oversight of new ANC’s democratic renewal reforms.

Civil society representations, policy input and participation in ANC internal elections should be part of all ANC conferences. Cosatu (2007) have proposed that representatives from civil society organisations should be appointed to the ANC’s national executive committee. This Cosatu proposal should be deepened to include having civil society representatives at all levels of ANC structures – starting with branch leadership.

Civil society groups and activists could form a pro-democracy lobby within the ANC, which should push for the total internal democratisation of the party at all levels, whether by participation in decision and policy-making or leadership election, especially the election of the president. Such a lobby must be given formal status in the ANC.

Improving the quality of policies

ANC conferences must be changed whereby there’s diverse policy constituencies – business, labour, civil society and academia can present policy proposals, ideas and input. Civil society, community groups and activists must play a bigger role in proposing policy, monitoring policy-making and the implementation thereof. They must be formally involved at every policy-making structure of the ANC.

The ANC must establish up a professional policy think tank, which should partner with higher education institutions, civil society and professional bodies. Such an ANC policy think tank must be staffed with the best talent, on merit and seek evidence-based, rather than ideological, populist or slogan-based policies. Civil society organisations must have representation at such a policy think tank.

Such a policy institution should obviously not be foreign government funded – no developing country has emerged from poverty to prosperity when its core policies were funded or captured by foreign governments, partisan and corrupt interests.


While the governing party of South Africa, a lack of internal democracy within the ANC, translates into a lower quality democracy in the wider society. In fact, an internally undemocratic ANC is an obstacle to building an inclusive, developmental and caring democracy in South Africa.

The only way to prevent further moral decay of the ANC is for members and supporters to transform the party into a wholly internally democratic organisation. Members, supporters, and activists must play more active roles in keeping the ANC democratic and holding its leadership accountable.

Ultimately, without introducing a minimum package of democratic renewal organisational reforms, the ANC, come the 2019 national elections, is likely to lose power.

Selected Bibliography

ANC (2012) General Secretary Report to the 53rd national conference of the ANC – Gwede Mantashe. ANC national conference. Mangaung, December 18.

ANC (2007) Towards the centenary of the ANC: Discussion document on organisational review – A strategic agenda for organisational renewal. ANC discussion document, March 30.

ANC (2005a) Organisational Report by Secretary General Kgalema Motlanthe. ANC National General Council. June 30.

ANC (2005b) The organisational design of the ANC: A case for internal renewal. A discussion document prepared for the ANC’s National General Council. Pretoria (29 June–3 July).

Baldez, Lisa (2006) The pros and cons of gender quota laws. What happens when you kick men out and let women in? Politics & Gender 2(1): 102–109.

Karen, Bird (2014) Ethnic quotas and ethnic representation worldwide, International Political Science Review 2014, Vol 35(1) 12–26.

Carroll, Barbara Wake and Terrence Carroll (1999) The consolidation of democracy in Mauritius. Democratisation, 6(1): 179–197.

Cosatu (2007) Central Executive Committee position paper on ANC political strategy and organisational issues, Cosatu, Johannesburg, June.

Gumede, William (2017) The Democracy Deficit of Africa’s Liberation Movements Turned Governments, Politikon, DOI: 10.1080/02589346.2017.1282337 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02589346.2017.1282337).

Gumede, William (2015) The Administrative Culture of the South African Public Service, Journal of Public Administration, 50 (3), 589-699.

Gumede, William (2009) Modernising the ANC. In Peter Kagwana and Kwandile Kondlo (eds.) State of the Nation: South Africa. Human Sciences Research Council (pp. 35-57).

Gumede, William (2006) Democracy and the Importance of Criticism, Dissent and Public Dialogue. In Amanda Alexander (ed) Articulations: A Harold Wolpe Collection, Africa World Press, Trenton, NJ.

Gumede, William (2005) Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC. Struik Random House, Cape Town, pp. 301-304.

Jensenius, Francesca Rensum (2013) Development from representation? A study of quotas for scheduled castes in India. Paper presented at the ECPR Joint Sessions Workshops, Mainz, Germany, 11–16 March.

Makhura, David (1999) The MDM, civil society and social transformation: The challenges of building a popular movement for transformation. Umrabulo 7. http://www.anc.org.

Lenin, Vladimir (1921) Address to the 10th Congress of the All-Russian Communist Party, Moscow.

Reynolds, Andrew (2005) Reserved seats in national legislatures: A research note. Legislative Studies Quarterly 30(2): 301–310.

Sartori Giovanni (1976) Parties and party systems: A framework for analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tayeb, Monir (1998) Organisations and national culture: A comparative analysis. London: Sage.

Van de Walle, Nicolas and Butler, Kimberly Smiddy (1999) “Political parties and party systems in Africa’s illiberal democracies”. Cambridge Review of International Studies, 13 (2) 66-80.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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