The triumph of transactional politics in the ANC

Call it transactional politics.

It is the root of the ANC’s malaise. It explains the rise of the Gupta family, and the ANC’s incapacity to deal with them or President Jacob Zuma, even though they know this will cost them at the polls. It is crucial to understanding the presidential race. And it tells you what kind of ANC we will likely have in the foreseeable future.

It is summed up in this quote from a person close to Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidential campaign: “Nobody donates money to the ANC for philanthropic reasons, or because they love the party or what it stands for. It is all about what you can get back if you contribute to the party or back a winning candidate. Every rand we get comes with a payback expectation.”

The party needs a lot of money, as does each presidential candidate to campaign and buy votes. The winner gets to control a huge pile of patronage – the capacity to influence appointments, tenders and opportunities in and around government. And the first people to gain from the patronage will be those who helped the winner get there, knocking on the Luthuli House door to demand payback.

So every element of campaigning is a transaction: what will you give me if I support your campaign for office?

And these transactions cascade downwards. The president will have control over the top level of appointments, whether it is to the Cabinet, SOE boards or key government positions. Those appointees will have control over the next level, and they in turn will have influence at the next …

At each level, people want to get noticed and put up for positions, and to do so they have to offer their support to those who might give them those positions, or at least influence the choice. If it is not a position they want, it might be a tender.

Either way it is a transaction, and this style of politics now runs from the top to the bottom of the organisation.

This is why the ANC campaign is conducted largely behind closed doors, where deals can be struck, rather than in the American style of getting out, shaking hands and kissing babies to win favour with citizens.

In the US presidential election, it is the voter who in the end will choose the candidates and the president. Hillary Clinton had her party and the establishment behind her, and she had done every deal to line them up. She lost because she did not connect with voters. Donald Trump, on the other hand, did not have the party machinery behind him but won anyway because he connected with a certain class of voter.

To win the ANC presidency, and become presumptive national president, you don’t need popular support. You only need the vote of a majority of the roughly 4 000 branch delegates at the quinquennial elective conference. Endorsements will help, but more important is the capacity to deliver delegates, who will arrive at the December conference not bound by the mandates of their branches.

You can strike a deal with these 4 000 in two ways: you can buy their individual support, or you can buy those who control or influence those delegates by making promises to them about the rewards of such support. Most likely you need a combination of different transactions at these two different levels.

This is why slate politics is so important: you get the first level of support from key controllers of votes, such as provincial leaders, by offering them positions alongside you in the party’s top six. You back me, and I will back you. And that person then goes down to the regions in his province and offers the same: back me and I will look after you.

It is why slate politics and the buying of votes, however strongly condemned by everyone, does not disappear. It is why the voices of the elders, and those who plea for the return of values and principles, are not being heard: they are not transacting.

It was significant that Numsa members were recently concerned to hear that their general secretary had met quietly with one of the presidential candidates. They know what happens in those closed meetings.

It was summed up also when secretary general Gwede Mantashe said of ANC MPs who were considering breaking ranks in next week’s no-confidence vote: “If they had a conscience, they should have discovered that before they allowed their names on the ANC list.” The last thing you want is an MP with a conscience which may override the deal that gets them their jobs.

I don’t want to suggest that transactional politics is unique to the ANC. That would not be true at all. Jonathan Rauch of The Atlantic argues that it is not only “an inescapable reality in a functioning constitutional republic”, but it is desirable because it “means give-and-take, bargaining within the process, reciprocal back-scratching to achieve compromises”. It is, he is saying, the oil in the democratic machinery.

What is notable is that it has become the over-riding, crudely-executed culture within the ANC at all levels, submerging questions of values, ideology, public interest and the common good.

The Gupta family are not the only ones practising this kind of politics, just the most effective. The few who stand by conscience, principle and tradition are standing on the sidelines.

This from a party that was built on a set of values, and purports to speak on behalf of “the people”.

There is also a difference between making broad promises to interest groups (which is what electioneering is all about) and promising opportunities to individuals as rewards (which may cross a legal or ethical line). It is the latter which has taken hold of the ANC.

That is why the coverage of this year’s election contest is all about who is backing who, rather than any substantive discussion of policy and its implementation. Policy is just the rhetoric thrown about to hide the sordidness of the deal-making.

This kind of politics is divisive, which is why the ANC is so ridden with factionalism, and it is not transformational. Transactional politics precludes a transformational politics. It is all about cutting up the cake and sharing it around, not changing the recipe.

The pervasiveness of this mode of operation in the ANC means that all the presidential candidates have to play that game if they want a decent run at the highest office, like it or not.

To get key provinces behind you, you have to transact with provincial leaders who are corrupt, perhaps even implicated in political killings in their areas.

To raise money, you have to offer the promise of post-election patronage to those who bring delegates, rather than those best suited to those posts or tenders.

To manage the process, you have to look after those responsible for auditing branches, accrediting delegates and managing the ballot.

In other words, even if you are clean, you have to go through a dirty process. And you come out at the end carrying a massive bag of bespoke patronage.

*First published News24, August 3, 2017

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