Joel Bregman

If the ANC decides to adopt the ‘one member, one vote’ system, it will see the party do away with its delegate system. Joel Bregman argues this is incredibly significant for the ANC’s internal democracy and for proponents of intra-party democracy.

Last month, the ANC concluded its 55th national conference. Taking place every five years, the governing party’s national conference has far-reaching implications for governance and democracy in South Africa.

It is the forum where the governing party’s top leadership is elected and policy is adopted. Given the dire state we find ourselves in on multiple political, social, and economic fronts, the recent conference was one of the most consequential in our country’s history.

Recognising that its grip on power is slowly but surely weakening, the ANC itself has indicated it may lose majority power for the first time in 2024. This is a stunning admission that only a few years ago would have been inconceivable for the party to make publicly.

Public damage control exercise

To try and turn around its electoral fortunes, the ANC has been embarking on a very public damage control exercise to rebuild its public image and integrity. This has included the adoption of the step-aside policy, new rules for internal elections, the re-vetting of membership, lifestyle audits, and other measures to deepen its internal democracy.

Most of the analysis pre- and post-conference has focused on the power dynamics within the party, the winners and losers, and whether the party can reverse its course. What has not received adequate attention is the content of the reports and draft resolutions that were discussed and tabled at the conference and the potential impact of these on the party’s internal workings and the country’s democracy.

One particular proposal that emerged is the adoption of the ‘one member, one vote’ (OMOV) for internal elections, including the election of its national and provincial leadership. The proposed rule, as contained in an official ANC document from the conference, reads as follows:

4.9 All elections of the National Executive Committee (NEC), Provincial Executive Committee (PEC), Regional Executive Committee (REC) and Branch Executive Committee (BEC) of the ANC shall be guided by the rule of “one member in good standing one vote”.

4.10 This rule shall come into effect by the way of passing of a resolution by the NEC once all measures have been out in place to ensure that it is fully functional and after thorough consultation with structures.

One member one vote is exactly what it sounds like and is form of more direct democracy within a party. It is a system where every member of a political party votes directly for party leaders and candidates for public office. This contrasts with the delegate system that the ANC (and seemingly all political parties in South Africa) currently uses for almost all their internal elections.

In the delegate system, a single or a few members are delegated to vote on behalf of a structure, such as a branch, a region, or a province. At its recent elective conference, there were in the region of 4 500 voting delegates representing the party’s various structures and its approximately 4 000 branches, made up of hundreds of thousands of individual members.

As of December 2022, it was reported that the ANC has around 600 000 members in good standing, a massive decline from 1.4 million in 2020. Before the conference, branches had to deliberate and vote on who they wanted to support at the conference including for positions of the president, other members of the Top (now 7), and the NEC. Once an outcome was determined at branch level, an individual (or in some cases for larger branches, more than one but never more than a handful) was delegated to act on behalf of the branch. The individual member was mandated to go to conference and vote according to their branch’s decision.

If adopted (and there is no indication whether this resolution will receive sufficient support or not), it will see the party do away with its delegate system and replace it with OMOV across all its structures. This is incredibly significant for the ANC’s internal democracy and for proponents of intra-party democracy (IPD), a very positive development.

If adopted, the way it elects leaders will change dramatically. The election of the NEC, for example, would see every member in good standing (many hundreds of thousands of people) being able to cast their individual ballot and have their vote count.

The idea of OMOV is not a novel one to the governing party. ANC veteran Omry Makgoale has previously advocated for its adoption, arguing that it can ‘establish direct relations between ANC leaders and rank and file’, and that it will also contribute to establishing, ‘equal rights for all members in the ANC’.

Potential benefits

According to proponents of IPD, improved democracy within a party or parties can also positively affect the general culture of the political system as a whole. OMOV indeed has many potential benefits that can deepen a party’s internal democracy.

It can lead to increased inclusivity and the ability of members to have a more direct say in who leads the party and the policies it adopts. The votes of all members will count, rather than the current ‘winner takes all’ situation. For example, at present if there is a branch of 100 members, if 51 members of a branch vote one way, the votes of the other 49 members are essentially discarded. Under OMOV, the votes of the 49 members will be added to the votes from other branches that supported the same candidate.

OMOV will also make it much more difficult to buy votes, an allegation that has been levelled against the ANC at multiple conferences. It will increase accountability and push leaders and candidates to perform better, because they need to win the support of, in some scenarios, hundreds of thousands of individual members rather than a few thousand delegates. It may also assist the party in recruiting new members if there is a sense that their voices will be heard.

The logistics of implementing such a system will be challenging, especially for a party with a membership as large as the ANC. Given that the party struggled to start its recent conference on time because of logistical issues, it may be difficult to imagine how it would run an election for hundreds of thousands of its members (for the NEC; for other structures, the numbers would be far less). However, the ability to use technology will no doubt provide the party with options to mitigate these challenges, and its highly developed organisational structure will likely serve in its favour with such a task.

For parties committed to democracy, inclusivity, and empowering members, OMOV is an approach that all should be considering. When the ANC votes on whether it will adopt OMOV is uncertain, but if adopted, it has the potential to alter its internal democracy in a very meaningful way positively. If this is part of its strategy to rebuild its brand and trust in the organisation, it will likely not accomplish much or garner public support. However, if this is a legitimate effort to deepen its democracy and empower its members, it should be supported and in the long term, may help the party to rebuild.

Originally published on News24.