MPHUTLANE WA BOFELO argues that the worldwide resurgence of self-organisation and citizen-led protest movements and uprisings is a wake-up call that unless political parties find new and effective ways of making the government of the people by the people for the people a reality, they are going down history’s dustbins.
THE 2023 State-of-the-Nation Address (SONA) and subsequent pronouncements of the ANC-led government hardly articulate a long-term strategy of socio-political and economic transformation. They are more like electioneering sound bites that are aimed at placating angry citizens and making big promises ahead of the national general elections in 2024. Similarly, responses of opposition parties lack propositions of sound and practical alternative policies and programmes. They sound more like electioneering statements that put across the message that the ANC cannot govern, and they are the alternative government that the electorate must put in power in 2024.
From the start of 2023 one could tell by the rhetoric and activities of South African political parties that it is the year before the national general elections. As it amplifies its promises about the unity and revitalisation of the party and state institutions, and a better life for all, the ANC seems to be fixated on how to improve its electoral performance, maintain its position as the governing party and ward off the danger of it losing the hold on political power.
On the other hand, the main concern of opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), appears to be how to increase their chances of dislodging and replacing the ANC as the governing party. Likewise, the primary concern and focus of the smaller parties is gaining or increasing seats in government to improve their prospects to be either the main opposition or the governing party in the future.
In other words, all political parties have the ambition to govern and mostly respond to the needs and voice of the electorates with this end in mind. Accordingly, most political parties direct their energies towards the immediate goal of responding to the electorates and defending or gaining political power. Thus, the political parties hardly channel their energies towards the development of long-term goals and strategies.
The irony is that as much as they are obsessed with the ambition to govern, most political parties are themselves poorly governed and hardly pay attention to organisational governance, leadership and management issues. A case in point is how the governing party struggles with its organisational and financial management issues.
This is illustrated by its continuous struggles with paying salaries of its staff, how it spends extraordinary hours on the issue of accreditation of branches at all its congresses, and how it is always faced with objections and complaints about either the candidate list or the outcomes of their congresses. This is not restricted to the ANC.
Most political parties hardly have fully constituted, functional and active local branches or consistent programmes, projects, and campaigns on the ground. There is hardly a party in South Africa that has not in one way or another, at one moment or another, been dogged by claims of mismanagement of funds or the abuse of power and internal political processes by its political leaders or officials.
Internal democracy and organisational governance issues that are often at the centre of conflicts with political parties range from allegations of factional and dictatorial ways of handling internal processes, debates, dissent and disagreement to allegations of financial mismanagement, vote-buying, fabrication of information that informs the outcomes of congresses and manufacturing of the results. Furthermore, there are often questions around the legitimacy of leadership or the status of a congress.
On the (far) left of the political spectrum it is not unlikely to hear of National Executive Committees and/or Central Committees elected at national congresses attended by less than hundred delegates. Yet the same parties mimic the bigger parties in their preoccupation with short-term external crises and obsession with short-term objectives of electoral performance and winning votes rather than focus on medium- and long-term strategies and internal organisational resources and capabilities to give life to these strategies.
The lack of long-term strategic planning and imprisonment to the short-term objectives of responding to immediate crises, appeasing citizens or appealing to the electorate yield ad hoc and superficial responses such as establishing the ministry of electricity instead of an intervention that deals with the systemic, structural, and institutional causes of the energy crisis.
In the long run the sacrifice of long-term strategic planning on the altar of the politics of convenience that are centred on what brings immediate political mileage and instant limelight does not only lower the capacity of political parties to survive in the rapidly changing political landscape. It diminishes public trust in the capacity and will of political parties to govern or better people’s lives.
The rapid decline in the membership and support base of the ANC and its alliance partners and the fact that the Pan Africanist, Black Consciousness and Trotskyist formations in South Africa are suffering a natural death shows that surviving in the ever-changing political environment requires more than struggle credentials, a ‘proper’ political line, or politically correct responses to immediate issues. It needs political parties to anticipate and be up to speed with social, political, economic, and technological developments and new societal demands. This requires the capacity to develop an organisational philosophy, structure, and culture (i.e. principles, processes, and practices) that do justice to the arguments and realities of the time.
This is only possible through long-term political strategising that entails regular analysis of the social, political, economic, and cultural landscape and adapting to new developments based on the inputs and information from the internal and external environment of the organization. The measure of the success of such a political strategy is the ability to develop a new language and practice of politics and explore and experiment with new and fresh forms of organisation, organising and activism instead of recycling political traditions and slogans.
Failure to evolve, adapt and change to meet current social demands and new realities can only mark the death of political parties. The worldwide resurgence of self-organisation and citizen-led protest movements and uprisings is a wake-up call that unless political parties find new and effective ways of making the government of the people by the people for the people a reality, they are going down history’s dustbins.
The choice for political parties is between creativity and demise. It is the choice between embracing or being replaced by more direct methods of democratic participation and popular governance.
- Mphutlane wa Bofelo is the training coordinator in the Public Servants Association of South Africa. (PSA). He writes in his personal capacity.