By Joel Bregman

As the ANC approaches its 55th elective Conference in December, the governing party continues to unravel itself.

Recently, Zandile Gumede, who has been charged with thousands of counts of fraud and corruption, and Mandla Msibi, who is facing charges of murder and attempted murder, were elected to senior leadership positions in the party.

Their election has once again shone a spotlight on the party’s step-aside policy and its effectiveness in holding leaders to account and in contributing to efforts to rebuild the party’s image. Gumede had already stepped aside when she was elected, and Msibi complied after he was instructed to by the party.

Until now, nothing prevented leaders like Gumede, who had stepped aside, from running for party positions. This was proving to be deeply problematic for the ANC, and at a meeting, late last month, the National Executive Committee (NEC) strengthened the policy by amending it to explicitly include prohibiting leaders charged with a crime and who have stepped aside from contesting for party positions.

Importantly, the change also seems to suggest that the policy will now apply to any crimes, as opposed to only corruption or serious crimes, as it was previously. The party has clarified that the new policy cannot be applied retrospectively and that it is likely to be further amended.

While the ANC constitution was amended in 2017 to include Rule 25.70, which provides for the suspension of ANC members, representatives, and office-bearers, guidelines for the step-aside policy would take years to be developed and were only fully implemented in February 2021.

By late March 2021, the NEC directed the secretary-general’s office to get names from the executive councils of all members who had been charged with corruption so the step-aside resolution could be implemented.

Since then, several ANC leaders have stepped aside, including Gumede, Mike Mabuyakhulu (KZN deputy chairperson), and Danny Msiza (Limpopo Treasurer), but the effectiveness of the policy remains in question.

This is due to perceived shortcomings in the policy and the way it is being implemented. The policy was put to the test when the highest-ranking member of the ANC to be suspended under Rule 25.70, the currently suspended Secretary-General Ace Magashule, took the ANC to court, challenging his suspension and the legality of the step-aside rule.

The High Court found the policy to be legal, and this was upheld by the Supreme Court of Appeal, giving the policy the green light. Some provincial leaders have called for the policy to be re-evaluated at the December conference, while others want it repealed completely, with ANC Treasurer Paul Mashatile recently confirming that the policy will be up for discussion at the December conference.

It also seems that depending on your standing in the party, the rule has been applied differently. There are claims that the decision not to force Bathabile Dlamini to step aside after her conviction for perjury is due to her power in the ANC Women’s League and the league’s influence.

It is unclear if former president Jacob Zuma has stepped aside or not, with conflicting media reports on the matter.

Why the ANC needs to get its step-aside policy right

When the ANC adopted the resolution for a step-aside policy at its 2017 conference, reaffirming a decision taken in 2015, it was rightly seen as an important element to rebuilding the party’s integrity, one that has suffered enormous reputational damage to its public image and electoral success in recent years.

This decision was both expedient for the governing party as well as a genuinely important development for the integrity of the movement towards greater internal democracy and accountability.

Some see the election of Msibi and Gumede as membership rejecting the policy. The ANC is actively trying to develop the narrative of a rebirth in the party and is finally speaking frankly about what the party needs to do to regain trust (and to remain in power).

President Cyril Ramaphosa has recently commented in reference to the ANC that the “house is on fire”, so the recent strengthening of the policy is a crucial, albeit long overdue, step in the right direction.

The formation in January this year of the ANC Renewal Commission, set to make recommendations at the December conference, has the potential to be an important development. But if the ANC is truly dedicated to renewal and rebuilding itself, as its PR machine wants the public to believe, it needs to iron out the issues in its step-aside policy and ensure it is implemented properly and impartially and not used to fight factional battles.

Doing so will benefit the ANC’s public standing and contribute to its hopes of staying in power. At the same time, our politics generally will also be positively affected by an additional modicum of accountability and ensuring ANC leaders charged with crimes need to have their names cleared before they can continue to serve.

Originally published on IOL