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Why those who want to lead must emerge from the shadows

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.


  1. Owen Owen 5 December 2007

    You are right. If we want to move away from a one party state then people need to see that their vote does make a difference and that they are not bullied into silence.

  2. Rapelang Rapelang 5 December 2007

    Very interesting piece Steven.
    My understanding of the workings of the ANC during the Apartheid times is that people were deployed into leadership positions by consensus. Thus the phenomenon of open campaigning never existed within the movement. Now that the ANC has transfigured itself from a liberation movement to a political party, its tradition of leadership-by- consensus is challenged by the tradition of leadership-by-election (which includes the phenomenon of open campaigning). The evidence for this is manifested in the intensity of the battle between Zuma & Mbeki (& between their “camps”). Leadership-by-election is a phenomenon that the party now has to grapple with and must adapt to. How it deals with this will determine the maturity of the party in its democratic transition.

  3. Lukhanyo Lukhanyo 5 December 2007

    I think Prof you are missing the point that open campaigning has produced leaders that are not necessary good leaders in the States. Currently we have Bush who emerged becasue of his rich background and father thus creating an unfair advantage to his opposition. Currently we clinton and Obama fighting it out for the presidency and everyone knows clinton will win because of her financial muscle. Here we have JZ who had to make friends with business even though he hates them because of survival. But when its not open it means you only uyse argument to win your vote not your purse.

  4. devy devy 5 December 2007

    Prof, I think it is vital that, members of the ANC must not change the traditions of the organization to suit the current situation. What the movement needs to do is to harness the moral and disciplined ways of handling such situations. Yes times change, but what does not change is morality and discipline, because those are the things that are suppose to consciously guide human beings

  5. Rapelang Rapelang 5 December 2007

    On the issue of open campaigning, I agree with Steven that banning open campaigning will not necessarily prevent campaigning itself – in my view it will push it “underground”. There are people who naturally want to lead & who have the ability to do so. In the absence of a platform that allows them to put themselves forward, they will be frustrated and are likely to adopt underhanded means to get to the top (apparently the documentary -“unauthorised” – on SABC 3 that featured Thabo Mbeki atests to this for it implied that he became ANC president in 1997 through underhanded means).

    This threat is even more dangerous for the unity of the ANC than any threat arising from open campaigning that allows potential candidates to avail themselves.It is divisive and will produce “camps” within the party.

  6. T. Kwetane T. Kwetane 5 December 2007

    I think you have a point and I think the ANC will be more open in future. I’ am however disappointed in that you did not address what to me seems to be an undemocratic call by the media that Mbeki must pull out of the elections. How does this “pulling out” strengthen democracy? It seems to me that the narrow interests of our media are the biggest threat to our democracy.

    The “succession” issue in the ANC has been the best thing we could have ever wished for. The insistence of both Mbeki and Zuma to “campaign” and fight it out can only strengthen our democracy.

    The effect of money in elections is of course a big lie. A critical look at the data (American) does not support this conclusion. Money does not swing people. Popular candidates win elections regardless of how much money they managed to raise during campaign season. They win because they are popular nothing else nothing more.

    Open it up, I say.

  7. Matshidiso Moiloa Matshidiso Moiloa 5 December 2007

    It is their right for the ANC to want to put themselves forward and it will be done at the end of the day. This party has done all of the hard work and south africans have suffered tremendously under the appartheid regime, it is time now that they enjoy the outcome of all their hard work. Concerning JZ, he is a good leader and he was found not guilty by the court of law, he too was part of the struggle and he too deserves to taste something that the rightfull citezens by origin of this country are entitled to, that is leading the country the way it would have been lead had it not undergone the appartheid regime. There is nothing wrong with him holding out a campaighn, had he stayed still, he would have been persived guilty of the rape charge, so his campaign was also a way for him to clear his name which he has a right to do.

  8. Owen Owen 5 December 2007

    I agree with T.Kwetane, a good popular candidate will always beat money. Of course the ‘money’ will always follow a good popular candidate as big business lobby their cause.

    I am a little concerned that Matshidiso implies that JZ is entitled to a position. Surely he is expected to serve the people and not the other way round.

  9. aktshabalala aktshabalala 6 December 2007

    I personally think that your writings are closing the gap that has been left open by many people in your industry.

    Much as you put across your own views, you do not leave us with a feeling that yours are the gospel truth.

    If I compare your style to many of your colleagues; I am left with not choice; but to congratulate you.

    It is one of those arguments where no one way is the correct one. Those who feel against open campaigning, when you listen to their arguments, I honestly understand them; and so do I understand the free for all. I think time will guide us all.

  10. Lehlohonolo Lehlohonolo 6 December 2007

    Steve makes two errors, one; you easily brush off the issue amount money influence in campaigning for office as an “exception”. And then after this you convince yourself that you have dealt with the issue – that’s shoddy.

    The second issue, “Open campaigning means that people have the information they need to choose”… And who exactly disseminates this information? Isn’t it the estemeed fourth estate, which is currently ludded with overly bitter people against this person or that person? Take for instance, the poisonous Xolela Mangcu, who is apparently the receipient of some shares from his preferred runner, Tokyo Sexwale. His unrelenting onslaught about Tokyo is fit to govern tells a lot about the danger of putting power in the hands of this fourth estate. Because you have all sorts of creatures who masquarade as journalists in persuance of a specific not-so-grand goal.
    In today’s Natal Witness, Max Du Preez, in an attempt to peddle the same diatribe about the need to have individuals voted to outside political parties, equally shows how absurd the idea is by telling us that one electioneering would be so fun as to invite celebrities in the race – I think that is were the problem is, people who are in the comfort like du Preez and Friedman can say all they want about having “fun” when the poor expect real change.

  11. Steven Friedman Steven Friedman Post author | 6 December 2007

    Thanks for these responses.
    I understood the President to be saying on radio last night that campaigning was now ‘unavoidable’. So it does seem that the tide is turning and that ANC leadership is accepting campaigning as a natural part of the election process.
    And to T Kwetane, yes, obviously you are right to insist on Mbeki’s right to stand for (and campaign for) office. The people who are calling on him to withdraw need to respect ANC delegates’ right to choose.

  12. Steven Friedman Steven Friedman Post author | 6 December 2007

    Lehlohonolo – you are entitled to your opinion but I did want to point out that my view is not at all the same as Max du Preez’s. I am not suggesting that people outside political parties should run, I am addressing the question of how the contest between ANC members for president should be run. And it is precisely because I feel that poor people should have a say that I don’t want the contest restricted to a select few.

  13. Luzuko Gongxeka Luzuko Gongxeka 6 December 2007

    The democratic process of choosing an ANC leader is the preserve of ANC members and not the rest of us. If we want to be involved in voting for an ANC leader, we should all join the party. The idea behind this, I think, is for people to follow the organisation and what it stands for. Ours, come 2009, is not to choose between a Mbeki or Zuma administration, but an ANC administration.

    Open campaining for the presidency of the ANC should be discouraged, it is not up to the ‘rest of us’ to decide which cadre of the ANC is fit to govern. In traditional ANC values, no comrade is better than the other. There is no individualism in the ANC, any attempt to cantradict this will be futile. Then why waste financial resources that could be used to advance other imperatives for development?

  14. Rapelang Rapelang 6 December 2007

    I have to express my dissappointment at the depth of the person who conducted the Mbeki radio interview on Wednesday. His questions were based on speculations; most of them were more related to government than to the ANC as a political party (despite the insistence that the interview is directed to Mbeki as Party President). It was a great PR exercise for Mbeki’s campaign and I don’t blame the SACP & Cosatu for slamming it as such.

    I do not question the democratic right of ANC delegates to nominate Mbeki as their preferred candidate (it is ANC policy). I do question Mbeki’s decision to allow himself to be available for nomination as party president. Two terms at the helm of the party should be sufficient, he should have just stated from the onset that he is not available for nomination – thus allowing a fresh crop of potential leaders to emerge. He cannot be president of the nation after April 2009 because of the constitutional limitation of two terms in office. In short, there are no further aspirations for him even if he is re-elected as party president in Polokwane. He has better prospects within the AU or UN.

    Hugh Masekela has a song “Everything must change”- addressing leaders who hold-on to power. Surely, its time to say goodbye..

  15. Sam Sam 15 February 2008

    The ANC is not a monolithic organisation. It is a confederation of irreconcilable factions – liberal democrats, social democrats, leninists, stalinists, trotskyites, workerists, capitalists etc etc etc. It provides shelter for both the SACP and the tattered remains of the NP (neither of which has the guts to face an election under its own banner).

    There is little hope of authentic multiparty democracy emerging until this spurious coalition shatters into its component parts.

    Another factor militating against democracy is the list system which is manipulated by party bosses. The names on party lists should be determined by a system of US-style primaries in 400 regional super-constituencies (ballots not caucuses) supervised by the Electoral Commission. The position of candidates on the party lists should be determined by the number of votes they receive in their constituencies.

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