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On 3 May 1990, about 10 000 residents of Katlehong, the East Rand township that is my hometown, met to consider a community response to a bloody taxi war that had broken out in the municipality. These were heady times in South Africa, as you no doubt remember. The ANC had been unbanned three months earlier.The meeting was called by the Katlehong Civic Association. Among those present at the meeting that day was a young activist who could not help himself. He talked too much and prefaced every comment with the lines: “As Comrade Lenin said…As Comrade Marx said”. This went on for a while before an old man, deciding he had had enough of this high-falutin, exploded, to much mirth from the crowds and embarrassment from the activist: “Ag tog, young man! Marx or no Marx, people are dying and that’s what we are here to talk about, not to listen to you show off how educated you are!”

You won’t find this exchange in the truth commission’s record of the violence that wrecked Katlehong between 1989 and 1994. The encounter between the old man and the activist exists today only in people’s memories and is often told with humour. For most people, the incident is recounted as the day a young upstart was cut to size by a wizened old man; for activists, the clash illustrates what happens when unrefined theory meets local practice.

Contrary to what some of you might think, I am not the young man put in his place that day. However, I do think there is something to be said for the lesson in modesty dished out that day, especially for those of us with a weakness for theory and a weak grasp of local practice. I do not intend to make my story do more work than it can but I do want to draw on its lesson for what I am about to do: (1) help us understand what the ANC looks like when viewed from the level of a branch; (2) challenge what I call the Polokwane narrative about what happened in December 2007. I know I speak of only one out of 2696 branches. But the findings of my research are pertinent enough to allow me to raise certain questions about the valourisation of ANC branches post-Polokwane.

In going about my business tonight,  I seek neither to damn the ANC nor to question the legitimacy of Jacob Zuma’s reign. This is an important qualification for me given that, as some of you know, I did not vote for the ANC in April. I intend rather to call into question the claims that have come to explain the role of ANC branches in what took place in Polokwane. There is something else I would like us to do this evening given that my talk comes so soon after the recent spate of so-called service delivery protests: that is, examine the language of crisis in which we talk about townships and to a lesser extent ANC itself. To speak this language of crisis, which is what most of us in the commentariat seem to be fluent in, is to be limited to a truncated grammar where every sound in a township is a service delivery protest and every failing in a poor neighbourhood is automatically the fault of the ANC. Oh, if only the ANC branch was strong in Khutsong, if only the ANC branch was vibrant in Piet Retief, if only the ANC branch was accountable in Diepsloot. Well, what if these so-called service delivery protests are taking place despite the ANC and not in spite of it? What if it is to ask too much of ANC branches to assume that their strong presence would automatically lead to a different kind of politics instead of the violence we see?

Maurice Duverger, the French theorist of political parties, claims branches are a socialist invention, that they were intended to allow for a more egalitarian form of political organisation. Interestingly, for a party that had chiefs among its founder-members, that ANC has always based its organisation on branches, starting with its 1912 constitution. The organisation has changed over the years but branches remain its basic unit. They are central to its self-conception as a mass party. You cannot be a member of the ANC unless you belong to a branch. In terms of the ANC constitution, 90% of delegates to its national conference, the organisation’s highest decision-making body, must come directly from branches. A branch needs a minimum of 100 members to exist and new members must take an oath of loyalty and undergo induction.

But, as Kublai Khan warns Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, one should not confuse the description of a thing with the thing itself. The warning came in handy as I grappled with what I call the Polokwane narrative. The way I see it, the narrative rests on two claims: the first is that what we saw in Polokwane in 2007 was an uprising by branch members fed up with a technocratic and aloof leadership. The second claim is that branches saved Jacob Zuma, the common man par excellence, by making his a cause celebre. The two claims have acquired the quality of a self-evident truth. But how true are they?

Assuming that the Polokwane narrative were true, that the revolt was a valiant struggle by ANC branches to win back the ANC from a distant leadership, what exactly was an ANC branch and how did it function, I wanted to know? So began my research. My methodology was simple: I attended branch meetings as a participant-observer, went to ward committee meetings in my neighbourhood, reconnected with my old activists network, interviewed branch members and ANC veterans and supplemented my research with archival material. The youngest person I interviewed was a 22-year-old member of the ANC Youth League; the oldest an 80-year-old veteran who joined the ANC in 1963.

There were two reasons I chose Katlehong. The first was that I was born there. The second reason was that Katlehong boasts a proud history of struggle. If there was any place that could help me make some sense of the Polokwane revolt, Katlehong was it. We, after all, hold the record for the biggest ANC branch ever in South Africa: 22 000 paid-up members in the early 1990s. We might have only one MP and two members of the Gauteng legislature (this for a township with a million residents) but we count many firsts when it comes to the righteous fight. Katlehong and its predecessor-township Dukathole were among the first townships to launch the 1952 Defiance Campaign. We were also among the first to challenge Bantu Education in 1955. As one 74-year-old ANC veteran put it: “We began the struggle against Bantu Education while the people of Soweto were still eating bacon and cheese”.

There are 11 ANC branches in Katlehong. The branches were formed in 2001 after an ANC decree that smaller branches be established in line with the new municipal boundaries drawn up in 2000. Besides, the ANC reasoned, 22 000 members were too cumbersome to manage: You needed 11 000 plus one member to form a quorum. The branch I studied covers one municipal ward and has 178 paid up members. However, only about 40 people attend branch general meetings regularly. There is a fifteen-member executive committee. Katlehong is predominantly a working class township and this is reflected in the composition of the branch membership. Only two members of the branch’s top five have regular jobs. You would think that with 178 members, the problem of quorums would be easier to manage. Wrong. In 2008 it took the branch eight attempts to finally hold its annual general meeting (AGM). I do not mean to suggest that this branch is typical of an ANC branch. No two branches are the same.

In some ways, there is nothing novel about my research. Read any ANC report from the 90s onwards and there is this constant complaint: ANC branches are dysfunctional; ANC branches are weak: ANC branches are disengaged from community struggles. The refrain has yet to change. In his last report as ANC secretary-general, Kgalema Motlanthe spoke of “gate-keeping ghost members, rent-a-member, commercialisation of membership, branch numbers that rise on the eve of elective conferences and collapse shortly thereafter, and other forms of fraudulent and manipulative practices that seek to influence the outcome of elective processes”. If there is anything fresh about my project, it is that, to steal a line from Walter Benjamin, “I give this dysfunction physiognomy. In other words, I put a face to the mess”.

Take the failure of my branch to hold its AGM last year. Part of the problem is that, as a member of the branch executive committee put it to me, “We do not have members of the ANC in the branch; we have members of members. Members are more loyal to other members than they are to the ANC, despite the ANC oath that new members must take, pledging to fight factionalism.

I studied the branch to understand the source of the so-called Tsunami. Part of my motivation was to understand the disconnect between what the commentariat was saying about Zuma’s moral standing and suitability for office, and how ANC members seemed to behave towards him. One of the people I interviewed was the branch secretary. To understand his story, you must remember that Gauteng was about the only province that went to Polokwane with no clear favourite between Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki. The ANC leadership preferred Mbeki while the majority of branches seemed to favour Zuma. According to the branch secretary, he was the only person in the branch to support Zuma openly.

The secretary says when it was time to choose branch delegates, whose numbers are determined by the number of members in a branch, the pro-Mbeki faction that controlled the branch sabotaged him. They told me the meeting to choose delegates was at 11am. They met at 8am. But the Mbeki faction was in for a surprise. The secretary, who had been a youth league leader in his area, says he called the Youth league provincial office in Johannesburg. In no time, he had a delegate’s accreditation for Polokwane. (Bear in mind that he had no branch mandate for this). And who should he bump into at the conference but one of the two official delegates from the branch. She said: “how did you get here?” I told her to voetsek. He says he was offered R500 to vote for Mbeki, with a promise of R1000 more to come afterwards. He took the money but voted for Zuma anyway. I don’t think I will ever see a conference like that one again. This, then, is one of drops out of which the so-called Zuma Tsunami was formed.
What about the claim that Zuma was saved by the branches? Of the meetings I have been attending since January, only once have I heard Zuma’s name mentioned: that was on 6 April when the secretary ended the meeting 30 minutes early so members could rush home to watch the news of Zuma’s legal escape on the SABC’s 7.30pm news bulletins. The meetings I have attended are taken up with bureaucratic concerns and the transmission of decrees from on high, meaning the Ekurhuleni regional office.

No Social Capital
Here, then, is what I found. There is such a low social capital, by which I mean levels of trust and reciprocity, between members that rumour has acquired a political currency all of its own. Here, personalised tensions are so pronounced that everything is called into question, including what it means to be a comrade. Let take our current councillor, elected in 2006. How did she become a councillor? 1. Is she a deployee put in her position by the ANC in keeping with its commitment to gender equity, as some members claim? What about those members, such as the branch chairman, who say openly they won’t be led by a woman?
2. Is she the accidental comrade who started attending branch meetings to check on allegations that her husband, a trade unionist and member of the branch executive, was having an affair with another member, and found herself elected deputy branch secretary and, later councillor as other members say?
3. Or, is she the scheming politician who paid a regional ANC power broker R8000 for her seat, as some branch members whisper?
What about the branch secretary? He, after all, was elected to his position last year despite the fact that he assaulted two members during two separate meetings in 2006. The first victim was the husband of the current councillor. The second a member who subsequently left the ANC to join COPE. Was the secretary elected to his position because he is a hard worker, as his supporters claim, or did he just do a better job of mobilising his members on the day of the branch elections? As for the regional office, why could it not do better than send an official to give the branch a political lecture on respect when all around the branch was falling apart?
The dysfunction in the branch is not helped by the fact that the secretary and the councillor, whose husband he beat up, have not got over that episode. He keeps her away from the branch executive. This means we have an ANC councillor with no effective way of accounting to her own organisation. Some members believe it suits the secretary just fine to keep her at arms length. This allows him to build up his profile ahead of the 2011 municipal elections. But his isolation of the councillor means she does not have to consult the branch when appointing Community Liaison Officers (CLOs) for development programmes in the area. These officers are supposed to serve as a bridge between the community and construction companies. However, two of these officers in our ward are subcontractors to projects they are supposedly overseeing for the community. A veritable conflict of interest. As one branch member put it: The National Democratic Revolution ended a long time ago. It’s now the Tender Distribution Revolution.

With little to fight for in the way of big infrastructure projects in the ward, those in the branch pursuing the tender distribution revolution, and there are quite a few, find themselves pursuing ever-smaller crumbs. One subcontract (for the erection of kerbs alongside a newly-constructed road) is said to have been worth as little as R2800. As one CLO who seems to have kept his hands clean says: This is no longer a struggle for freedom; this is a struggle for the stomach. A new recruit who is finding it difficult to draw new members to the organisation says: People believe that joining the ANC will get them tenders as tenders are for ANC members only.

You would think, with all this going on, that the dysfunction of the branch in our ward would show in the ANC’s performance in the last election. Far from it. The ANC polled 10036, COPE 528, the IFP 110 and the DA 78. According to one branch member, it is a good thing that the people who turn out in such numbers for the ANC do not know of the rot within the branch. It probably helps too that while the ANC may be the only game in town for those interested in tender distribution, there is enough of an associational life and civic culture in the ward, as opposed to passive expectation, to mitigate the ANC’s dominance.
Scholars such as Patrick Heller claim that in fact South Africans enjoy the status of citizenship more than they enjoy the practice of citizenship. That is to say, South African citizenship is more formal than it is substantive. Heller also says that our democracy is more institutional than it is deep. It seems to me, however, that such claims hold only if we measure our democracy solely by the health of the ANC.

I find Heller’s arguments interesting but overdrawn. Far more interesting for me is the discovery I made in the course of my study. That discovery is this: the ANC’s election strategy has been unchanged since 1994. Sure, we saw texting, TV spots and, dare we say it, a tacky beauty contest in April’s general election. But the basics of the campaign: the house-to-house visits, the blitzes, the rallies, all these are laid out in a strategy first drawn up by Popo Molefe, Pallo Jordan and company in the early 1990s. To me, that makes the ANC look more like a general who is always fighting the last war than a seasoned political party forever adjusting to shifting political terrain. Might this constant fighting of the last electoral wars “and not the supposed weakness of ANC branches per se” help explain why 12-million eligible voters (which is almost 1-million more than voted ANC in April 2009) did not bother to vote at all this time around? Or maybe the question to ask is this: does the ANC even need branches? Well, many more people would have to study many more ANC branches before we can answer that one. Thank you.

Listen to a podcast of Jacob Dlamini’s lecture