It is more than a little ironic that ANC leaders who once fought so hard to ensure that all of us can vote freely have spent the past few weeks trying to convince us that those South Africans who actually belong to the movement should have far less of a vote than the rest of us.

However the race for ANC president ends up, it has already turned out to be the most open contest for the job in over five decades. And some ANC leaders have made it clear over the past couple of weeks that this has happened not because they wanted it but because they could not stop it.

Not all have gone as far as national chairperson Mosiuoa Lekota, who insisted in a radio interview that it was a “criminal act” to wear T-shirts supporting Jacob Zuma. But several ANC leaders, including the president, have denounced open campaigning. People who openly seek office within the movement are, they argue, ambitious and self-serving — they are also likely to sow division.

This, they insist, does not mean that ANC members are denied their democratic right to choose their leaders: they can, of course, do that in a free ballot — as they will do in Polokwane in a few days’ time. But it is up to members to decide who they want to lead them — not up to would-be leaders to impose themselves by putting themselves forward.

In the past few days a new argument has emerged. If an open contest were allowed, we are told, ANC elections would become like those in the US — dominated by money: “only the rich would be able to participate because only they would have the resources to draft in the best campaign teams and marketing companies to position them to win”, Deputy Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba wrote a few days ago.

So isn’t it more democratic for people to decide who they want to lead them than for leaders to put themselves forward? Wouldn’t open campaigning award leadership posts to the rich only?

Banning campaigning does not prevent people campaigning for office — it simply stops them doing so openly. Pious talk about the evils of ambition can’t hide the reality that leaders emerge because some people want to lead — if open campaigning is not allowed, then those who want to lead will work to persuade people to choose them behind the scenes, insisting all the while that they don’t really want the job.

An obvious example is that, until a couple of days ago, President Thabo Mbeki was not officially seeking a third term — he was, officially, simply willing to allow people to put his name forward if they wanted him. But everyone knows that he and his supporters were working feverishly to get him elected. This is hardly the first time an ANC leader has sought a top job actively — behind the scenes, lest he seem “ambitious”.

Given this, the problem with discouraging free campaigning is that it denies voters the full use of their vote.

The right to vote means the right to choose — the more information we have, the more we are able to really choose because, the more we know about our options, the more are we able to decide which of them will work for us.

Open campaigning means that people have the information they need to choose. Leaders who have to campaign have to explain themselves and subject themselves to questioning from both their opponents and their voters. So, the more open the campaign, the more people are able really to choose. And this is why to discourage campaigning is also to devalue people’s vote.

The argument that open campaigning makes it inevitable that the rich will dominate also does not hold water. Yes, money does dominate politics in the United States. But this is not the inevitable result of open campaigning — it is very much the exception.

Open campaigning within parties and between them is standard in democracies — but in only a few does that mean that only the rich or those bankrolled by them can achieve high office.

There is an obvious reason for this — if democracies (or political organisations) want to prevent money dominating politics, all they need to do is pass laws or adopt rules limiting how much money can be spent on or by a candidate and under what circumstances. These rules are common — right now, the British Labour Party is in trouble for allegedly breaking them. And some of its breaches are supposed to have happened when people were campaigning for office inside the party. Those who broke the rules may well find that this ends their political careers.

If those ANC leaders who are opposed to campaigning do not want money to dominate politics, all they need to do is to adopt rules preventing this and make sure that they are strictly enforced.

Where some ANC leaders say they do not want money to dominate politics, they also seem to be practising double standards. Most political parties here, including the ANC, have resisted calls to pass a law forcing parties to reveal who funds them. This is one of the milder ways of regulating the use of money in politics — it does not stop people funding politicians; it simply insists that we be told who is giving to whom. If politicians who say they want to keep money out of politics won’t support even this measure, then they cannot really be serious about wanting to prevent money deciding elections. Their inconsistency simply confirms that this latest argument is an excuse, not an explanation.

So the arguments against campaigning are not serious defences of democracy — they are reasons that politicians give when they want decisions restricted to a small group of insiders. The more campaigning is allowed, the more would-be leaders are forced to explain themselves and the more the people are allowed to choose.

If the ANC presidential race has done nothing else, it has shown that campaigning is inevitable in a democracy — even when leaders actively try to discourage it.

The ANC is therefore likely to remain both democratic and united if it allows campaigning and devises rules to ensure that its does not tear the organisation apart or subvert its members’ wishes. Since the ANC is currently supported by about 70% of voters, the more open campaigning becomes part of its way of doing things, the more democratic a society we are likely to become.


  • Steven Friedman is a research associate at Idasa and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University. He is a newspaper columnist and a media commentator on South African politics. His academic speciality is the study of democracy. He wrote Building Tomorrow Today, a study of the trade-union movement, and edited two studies of the South African transition.


Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a research associate at Idasa and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University. He is a newspaper columnist and a media commentator on South African politics. His academic speciality...

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