The voice of the people starts as a whisper

The tendency to manage political parties as ‘private clubs’ is harming the very roots of our democracy, writes Nhlanhla Mtaka.

IN POLITICS, perceptions can be more dangerous than the reality. In fact, international studies show that most conflicts result from misperceptions.

The need to debate the state of internal party democracy has been accentuated by the recent division within the Inkatha Freedom Party over Ziba Jiyane, who was suspended at the weekend as the party’s national chairperson.

In some ways there are parallels between these events and recent tensions brought about by President Thabo Mbeki’s decision to release Jacob Zuma as deputy president. Both issues have affected perceptions and raised critical questions about internal party democracy. These matters have affected two national leaders who held powerful positions in their respective organisations. They are both good public speakers and both (Zuma and Jiyane) decry the maneuverings of certain members said to be fighting them within their parties. In both instances, these said opponents are somehow connected to bodies that are not elected but appointed – a national working committee in one instance and a national council in the other.

Both Zuma and Jiyane, for right or wrong reasons, have been tipped as possible candidates for the presidency of their respective organisations, the ANC and the IFP.

One can predict that the Jiyane issue will dominate the proceedings during the forthcoming IFP national conference – as was the case with the Zuma issue during the ANC’s national general council.

Without taking any sides, I think both Zuma and Jiyane have raised some legitimate and cogent questions around party democracy. But are their complaints about a lack of internal democracy well founded? Or are they just two men who want to be in power and are guilty of populist grandstanding (As their critics argue)?

No doubt, both men do want to be the presidents of their respective parties and there is nothing wrong with that. But I would contend that it is the means to that end that can be questioned.

Critics may well question Zuma and Jiyane’s timing in taking issue with party democracy. It may seem politically expedient to some that both men lament the lack of democratic practice within their party structures at the very time when a review (particularly in the case of the IFP) of political party protocol could well mitigate in their favour under the current pressure. However, we should look at the correct historical context of these issues.

During the past decade, South Africans have busied themselves building democratic institutions, the constitution and enriching parliamentary democracy. South Africa has successfully held national and local government elections, hailed around the world as groundbreaking and exemplary in the African context. We saw a transfer of presidential leadership and sailed from a stormy transition to democratic consolidation.

In a democracy a complex system of institutions, rules, and patterned incentives and disincentives become “the only game in town”. No significant political group seriously attempts to overthrow the democratic regime.

Moreover, most people believe that any further political change must emerge within the parameters of democratic procedures – and that political conflict will be resolved according to established norms, and that violations of these norms are likely to be both ineffective and costly. But, in all this, we’ve also neglected one important aspect of our modern, constitutional democracy – that is, internal political party democracy.

In neglecting this, we see opposition political parties making a noise about the two terms of office for the president of the country while saying nothing about the occupation of the presidency of their own organisations for more than two terms.

It does seem to be a contradiction for the president of the Republic of South Africa to have problems serving in government with a tainted deputy president, while he still serves with him with as his deputy at the party level.

These practices suggest that political leaders don’t respect political parties as much as they respect government institutions. For them, political parties remain “private clubs” whose democratic practice can’t be questioned by the public or the media.

This reticence to allow “private” political party issues to enter the public domain was also evident in the refusal of certain political parties to disclose their sources of funding.

A more telling event was the vehemence with which Mbeki reacted to Desmond Tutu’s insinuations that there was no freedom of debate within the ANC. Such reactions further suggest that democracy; good governance and transparency are commodities, which apply only to the government and not to political parties. As citizens

- Both in and outside government

- We should recognize that democracy in the government is bound to fail if we neglect political party democracy.

Political parties, as actors in the political drama, perform an indispensable role. They are influential in the political socialisation of any society and they vary considerably in terms of procedures and organisation.

Critical to the existence of any political party is the membership which, in theory, is supposed to influence the direction of the organisation.

Practically, party positions are now being taken by party caucuses and by working or executive committees. It is high time those in power were reminded of the importance of listening to the voice of the majority within their parties. Members are like the sea, a political party like the fish. No fish can live without water.

Nurturing internal-party democracy is, in a way, investing in our democracy and our future.

Nhlanhla Mtaka is a former executive member of the South African Youth Council and the National Arts Council. He works for the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.


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