The ANC has recently concluded its 6th National Policy Conference, with the need for its renewal emerging as a major theme. Key to the party’s renewal is to rebuild its internal democracy.

The governing party, struggling to maintain its power, has embarked on a public effort to renew and restore its image and integrity. Central to its plans are to deepen democracy from within the party. It has cemented its step-aside policy, has committed for its branches and ordinary members to be the driving force behind its policy, and plans to vet its entire membership.

While the reasons for this approach may be more expedient than altruistic, this is an opportunity that should not be missed because its impact may have far-reaching positive effects on the country’s democracy.

To be clear, deepening intra-party democracy (IPD) is important for all parties. But naturally, the level of IPD in a governing party has the greatest impact on the political system. With trust in political parties at extremely low levels (a 2021 Afrobarometer study found that less than 30% of South Africans trust political parties), our political system is in dire need of a reimagining towards greater accountability and transparency.

Politically, the time is ripe for a conversation about how our political parties should operate internally and how this can contribute to democracy for the country. The major irony of our democracy is that parties are considered private organisations, much like a suburban tennis club.

Given their very public role and that they receive public funding, one can argue that we should move towards viewing parties as public goods, meant to serve as representatives of the people, rather than the narrower interests they often seem to be pursuing.

IPD is a concept that interrogates the inner workings of a political party and whether parties conform to and promote democratic norms through their internal operations. IPD aims to develop participation, inclusivity within decision-making processes, and accountability within a party.

Parties can range from being highly autocratic, where power is vested almost entirely in the party bosses and where decisions are made in a top-down manner, to being extremely inclusive, where power rests with its members who determine their leadership, the positions a party should adopt, and there is a culture of transparency.

Crucially, the extent to which political parties are internally democratic can have a profound impact on the levels of democracy, accountability, and transparency in the greater political system.

For this reason, My Vote Counts considers IPD as one of the critical interventions that are needed in South Africa’s political system. IPD is a highly contested subject and the extent to which it can have positive influence for the political system more generally remains a point of contention.

Its detractors argue that it can be difficult to achieve in organisations such as political parties because they will always gravitate to levels of autocracy to achieve their aims, be competitive in elections, and if they then govern, to implement policy.

Critics see it as being incompatible with a strong party and argue that too much democracy can be dangerous for a party’s own survival. However, its proponents view IPD as a fundamental building block to deepen democratic culture in a country and foster involvement in the political space.

Political parties are the main (but by no means the only) vehicles through which people can be politically active, develop policy, and serve their communities and their country. It is therefore crucial that parties are democratic spaces where one can have one’s voice heard, contest for power, and be treated fairly; rather than places controlled by the party elite, who stifle debate and who hold on to power not for the benefit of the party or the country, but for themselves.

Additionally, the political training that people receive within their parties promotes a certain culture and approach to governance. If their parties are not democratic, then it follows that they will be less likely to embrace democratic practices when they serve in or lead a government.

More than a decade ago, the academic Dr Kebapetse Lotshwao foreshadowed how a lack of IPD in the ANC was threatening the consolidation of democracy in the country. He argued that given the dominance of the ANC, its top-down nature – with power consolidated and with centralised leadership that dominated decision-making within the party at the exclusion of its members and lower structures – was a threat to democracy in the country.

We saw this play out to the extreme during efforts to remove former president Jacob Zuma when, despite overwhelming evidence of his wrongdoings, ANC MPs continued to support him.

This example illustrates how a lack of IPD can have a devastating effect on political oversight. A governing party deploys its people to important institutions in government.

Within Parliament, this can undermine oversight of the executive because members know they need to follow instructions from the leadership, and this will result in them not always fulfilling their constitutional obligations to hold them to account.

Thanks to our closed-list proportional representation system, members are beholden to party bosses and almost always protect, agree with, and close ranks around leadership when challenged or placed under fire. There is a clear link here between a lack of democracy within a party and governance, and oversight that can negatively affect the entire country.

Unlike many countries, there is no overarching piece of legislation in South Africa that governs the inner life of its political parties. In law, they are private or voluntary associations. This means that parties can develop their own internal mechanisms, often leading to enormous power being vested in party elites.

All parties do practise various democratic processes of varying degrees in their internal operations. But, because parties are left to their own devices to determine how democratic they want to be internally, this can and has resulted in a myriad problems in our political space with very real outcomes for the lives of everyone.

IPD cannot be implemented in a “one size fits all” approach and imposing it on parties through regulation and laws may not be the most effective approach. Rather, we see greater potential through parties embracing IPD and this can be beneficial for themselves, but more importantly, for the public and the country that they are meant to represent and serve.