Profound reform of the party is needed to professionalise it, to root out corruption and make it a credible force for progressive change, writes Mzukisi Qobo. 

South Africa has a venerable liberation movement presiding over a modern constitutional democracy. Little wonder the party sometimes revolts against the constitutional order. The perverse relationship between the party and the state frustrates democratic consolidation and imposes limits to growth and development.

The ANC was in exile from the early 1960s to the 1990s. The “external mission” was fixated on dismantling apartheid. It gave little thought to the architecture of a democratic state.

When the ANC entered into negotiations in the early 1990s, this was uncharted territory. The ANC was insufficiently prepared to govern. It lacked bureaucratic depth and policy finesse, save for a few technocratically minded politicians.

The cream of the ANC’s intelligentsia, rather than the party as a whole, allowed the ship to sail steadily. Limited leadership depth meant the organisation was eventually taken over by factions not aligned to its professed values. Technocrats drove the first phase of democracy. The ANC’s “liberation movement” character was mostly suppressed. But the impulse to project a liberation identity returned in Thabo Mbeki’s second term, when tensions between the party and the state sharpened. New forces in the ANC were battling to redefine its purpose.

The “broad church” party contained ideological and factional strands often at odds with each other: adherents of past leaders’ values; perverse and sometimes corrupt elements; and a mix of democrats, modernists and those who saw the party as a vehicle to advance narrow personal interests. The ANC became ideologically confused and organisationally incoherent.

An unreformed party meant constraints on institutional reforms in government. The movement’s values and expectations, as embraced by its ordinary cadres, were at odds with the work of deployed cadres in government. The ANC’s approach to cadre development was blind to the reality that its human capital was limited, and its ideological rhetoric was often unrealistic in the face of complex policy choices. The party impeded the institutional modernisation of the state, and this constrained its capacity for sustained policy innovation.

The ANC’s shadow fell heavily on the appointment of senior bureaucrats in government, in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and in diplomatic missions, mainly through its national deployment committee. Local government, at the coalface of public service delivery, was a casualty of the party’s interference in resource allocation by the state.

Every year, the auditor-general paints a picture of systematic irregularity, wastage and corruption in local government, with skills deficiency a mark of how deep the party interferes at this most important sphere of government. Cadre deployment is one channel through which the party-state relationship is blurred. In the Zuma years this cadre deployment approach morphed: those personally loyal to Jacob Zuma, irrespective of their competencies, were appointed. The blurred lines between party and state had an increasingly adverse impact on the functioning of the state bureaucracy and public institutions, since this approach ignores merit or sound governance.

The corrosive tendencies of party interference have been associated with conflicts between directors-general and their ministers. There have also been tensions between ministers, the chairs of boards, and CEOs at SOEs. This has negatively affected SOEs such as SAA, the SABC, and Eskom.

President Cyril Ramaphosa faces some of these impediments. He can probably control just half of the ANC’s national executive committee. He has to bring together the disparate elements and lead the renewal of the party, while re-tooling a complex state and economic institutions damaged during SA’s dark decade under Zuma.

Whether he has a strategy to heal the deep fractures in his party, root out corrupt tendencies, reconfigure and improve governance, and revitalise the economy remains unclear.

Much depends on reforming an incorrigible ruling party, a prospect that seems increasingly remote as so many ANC leaders may have to answer to the commissions that Ramaphosa has established. Some may face serious corruption charges when the National Prosecuting Authority recovers its moral bearings. SA’s current challenges are deeply rooted in overlaps between the party and the state. In the Zuma years, an unreformed party grafted itself on to the state, diminishing the relative autonomy of the bureaucracy from politics and perverting state institutions in pursuit of anti-developmental goals. The blurred lines between party and state gave latitude to dominant ANC factions to repurpose the state for parochial ends. Zuma, with the ANC’s blessing , damaged key institutions, especially law enforcement agencies, the South African Revenue Service and SOEs. The rule of law will remain paralysed unless these institutions can be reformed and resourced by competent personnel.

Those who are faithful to the ANC and care about its future will need to undertake reforms to uproot corruption, professionalise the party and make it a credible force for progressive change in society. Such reforms would need to go deep and affect the whole movement, from the branches to national level. Ramaphosa also needs to place a huge bet on fixing the state. First, he needs to reform law enforcement agencies and appoint credible heads to them. Second, he needs to set a high standard for the appointments of the directors-general and the heads of SOEs and other key government agencies. This also goes for the heads of institutions charged with maintaining the rule of law. Law enforcement agencies that act with independence and without fear or favour are crucial to fighting corruption and protecting constitutional democracy.

Third, the office of the chief procurement officer at the National Treasury needs to be given more teeth, to ensure integrity in supply chain management. Finally, Ramaphosa and his finance minister need to act decisively to promote structural reforms that may not conform to the ideological templates of the ANC.

This would need to balance the exigencies of stabilising the economy, improving growth prospects and promoting competitiveness on the one hand; and mobilising energies in the government and the private sector to create possibilities for greater economic inclusion and shared prosperity.

For this to happen, Ramaphosa will have to act decisively against corruption. He will need to stand firm against cadre deployment traditions and draw talent for the state from across the spectrum in the country.

• Dr Qobo is associate professor: international business and strategy at the Wits Business School. This is an edited version of his report, “Party and State in South Africa“. The full report can be found in Viewpoints – a series of reports critical of SA’s development, published by the Centre for Development & Enterprise.