Promoting Internal Democracy in Political Parties in Southern Africa

Promoting Internal Democracy in Political Parties in Southern Africa

via Promoting Internal Democracy in Political Parties in Southern Africa March 23, 2014 Prof. Ambrose B. Chimbganda

One of the greatest threats to the stability of political parties, and by extension the stability of many countries in post colonial Africa, and in particular Southern Africa, is the level of intra-party democracy.

Nearly all the political parties in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) are riddled with factionalism, internal division, witch-hunting, bad-mouthing and down-right intolerance to criticism. In some cases both the ruling and opposition parties spend a lot of their time and money in trying to destroy their so-called political enemies. The end result is that both the ruling party and the opposition drown themselves in a futile exercise to out-manoeuvre each other. They lose focus on critical issues, such as job creation, food supply, investment, poverty eradication, electricity supply, clean water supply, the provision of quality education, and a host of other developmental issues.

In pursuit of the agenda of arrogance and exclusivity, some ruling political partiers neglect the regions or cities that are known to support the opposition, resulting in unequal development in the country. As part of the exclusion policy, the leadership of some ruling parties [including some opposition parties] is drawn from one tribal group or the other. This is the case in Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, and to some extent Botswana and South Africa where you can clearly see the uneven distribution of power in some of the political parties. Added to this, is the rise of a rich petty-bourgeoisie that benefits from patronage and family connections, which creates the feeling among ordinary citizens that “this is their government”.

When you combine this with rampant corruption in the public sector, such as the “salarygate” in Zimbabwe where heads of parastatal companies are paid astronomical salaries, where in South Africa tenders and contracts are corruptly awarded, where transparency and accountability in some countries is unashamedly ignored and where some heads of state in SADC have become stinking rich in the midst of poverty, you then ask: “What is the root cause of this savage, predatory behaviour?”

Why there is no internal democracy

For me, it all boils down to the culture of each political party, whether the party has a sufficiently entrenched mechanism which promotes openness and the rule of law, and whether there are clear regulatory measures that govern the conduct of party leaders. For instance, can you tell the “godfather” of the party, without fear of being victimised, that “you are wrong”?

A case in point is the recent violence in the MDC in Zimbabwe, the expulsion of Julius Malema from the ANC and the formation of the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) led by Mr Motswaledi, which split from the ruling BDP. Far from being motivated by ideological differences, these turncoat splinter parties are by-products of intolerance and lack of a democratic culture in the parent parties.

My knowledge of the political parties in Southern Africa stretching from the days of the “armed struggle” is that ordinary party members, including members of the central committee, have little or no power to influence the decisions of the top leadership. This is particularly the case with “liberation” movements which, in themselves, have very little internal democracy. When the liberation movements got into power through the barrel of the gun, there was nothing to stop them from trembling upon the fundamental rights of the people.

This is more evident where there is a canonised “big brother” who leads the party. He is so hero-worshipped that he is seen as some kind of a “demi-god”, a “messiah”, a “liberator” or a “father”. This was the case with Lenin, Mao Tse-Tung, Kwame Nkhrumah, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Kenneth Kaunda, Joshua Nkomo, Nelson Mandela and now Robert Mugabe.

Some of these leaders were given praise names by their mesmerised followers, including the ridiculous title of “doctor”. In doing so, an impression was created that they had a divine right to rule and could not be questioned. But, as posterity shows, such glorification was unwarranted because these were ordinary human beings, some of whom made monumental and unpardonable mistakes that ruined the countries they led.

The culture of benevolent dictatorship, unfortunately, has cascaded down to the current crop of leaders, some of whom cannot tolerate constructive criticism. They only want to hear vainglorious praises about their achievements, even when it is abundantly clear that they have lost the soul of the people they claim to lead.

The crescendo of the political circus is that, quite often, some cabinet ministers and other party leaders foolishly humiliate themselves by obsequiously bowing before the leader as a sign of respect. In some cases, they make a litany of perfidious and saturated greetings in order to show their loyalty. This is the tragedy of some of the current political parties which, while they look united outwardly, are riddled with deep-seated tensions, suspicion and mistrust.

A typical example is ZANU (PF) whose internal division undermines the smooth running of the party and, in turn, fails to offer an effective government which is able to fulfil its election promises. Instead, the party now sees Zimbabwe as “an inexhaustible cave of the Ali Baba type from where several highborn bandits commit raids to indulge their insatiable greed”.


Strategies for promoting internal democracy

In liberal political theory, it has long been noted that the relative neglect of the internal life of political parties is due to the notion that they are private associations, which are entitled to govern their own internal structures and processes. This laissez faire approach, unfortunately, has led to internal divisions because, among other reasons, the leader has too much power to the extent that every thing in the party revolves around him.

The “privatisation” of political parties has had devastating consequences on their survival. Can you think of how many political parties died after the exit or death of their leader? Kenneth Kaunda’s UNIP? Kamuzu Banda’s MCP? Robert Sobukwe’s PAC? Bishop Abel Muzorewa’s UANC? The list is endless. In the case of ZANU (PF), will the party survive after its leader, Robert Mugabe, who has unilaterally refused to have an open discussion about who should take over from him, has left?

But this can be avoided if political parties can strengthen their internal democracy. One of the major strategies is to allow ordinary members to express their views on maters of policy and strategic planning. This can be done by establishing forums within the party that hear directly the concerns and wishes of the people. Related to this is that the party leaders, instead of living in the comfort of their cocoons, need to be accessible to ordinary members so that they can know what is happening on the ground.

What makes political parties lose their touch with the people is that they tend to work like bureaucrats who mainly communicate through memos, emails and telephone calls. Such communication channels, although useful, lack a human face and often do not reach the rank and file. You need to have a critical mass of dedicated cadres or “foot soldiers” that are always in touch with the people. And in this day and age of digital technology, the party should have a website or hotline which can be used to communicate directly between the people and its leader(s).

A critical strategy that can promote internal democracy in a political party is to allow vigorous advocacy by non-governmental organisations and individuals, such as churches, students’ organizations, professional organizations, trade unions, farmers’ organisations and others. Once these bodies are given a hearing, the party is likely to speak the “voice of the people”. This strategy is emphasised by Article 6 of the Spanish constitution which states: “Political parties are the expression of political pluralism; they contribute to the formation and expression of the will of the people and are a fundamental instrument for political participation”.

A good example of a political party that is joined in wedlock to different organisations is the ANC, whose broad-based support has led to its long life. This can also be said about the initial mass support of the MDC in Zimbabwe, which appealed to different interest groups.

However, it is ironical that these two political organisations which once bonded with millions of suffering people are now vulgarised by the same people who once loved them. The reason is not far away to see. Their petty bourgeois orientation and the fact that they are now out of touch with the poor of the poorest, has led to their diminishing power and influence.

Internal democracy within political parties can also be enhanced by establishing qualified research teams that look into various economic, political and social issues. For instance, the research team can investigate why there is voter apathy, electoral processes, a declining support base, land redistribution, unemployment, the quality of education, internal factions, etc. Like any business enterprise, political parties need to look at their marketing strategies, including the quality of their leadership which stands as a brand for the party.


Electoral Procedures  

One of the key issues affecting inter-party democracy is the nomination process for people who want to stand for positions. In other words, who should decide which members are entitled to run for the position of the president of the party, parliament, urban and district councils?  Are there any academic or special skills required before one can stand, or can anyone stand for election? Should the length of time a person has been a party member be a major criterion for standing as a leader? And is age a limiting factor?

Also, it is important to spell out clearly and unambiguously the nomination processes. That is, how much power should be given to regional, district or local bodies in the process of selecting candidates? Is it democratic to allow the leaders of the party to vet or veto the candidates?

Unless there is consensus, these issues can easily tear apart the party. For example, in the last two elections in Zimbabwe, primary elections for both ZANU (PF) and the MDC were so contentious that some of the candidates ended up de-campaigning their own political parties. In Botswana, the recent primary elections for the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) were so controversial in some constituencies that it would not be surprising that in the coming general election some of the “losing” candidates will not campaign for their party’s candidates.

In South Africa where the electoral system is based on proportional representation, each party is required to draw up its own list of candidates. Although there is merit in using this system, especially where the society consists of distinct cultural groups, the question is how does the party arrive at its list of candidates? Is the process transparent and democratic enough? Is the list representative of the various ethnic groups? Can the party leadership be considered democratically constituted to be able to choose candidates for the whole country? These are searching questions that need clear answers.


Leadership and ethnic balancing

Perhaps the most important election is that of the party leader. The key question is, who should choose the leader? Should it be the delegates at a congress, the central committee or the rank and file? What about the process of nomination? Is it transparent enough?  What are the qualities of the leader the party is looking for? Should the choice be determined by the popularity and charisma of the leader, or is the party looking for a visionary, a craftsman, an inspirational or a transformational leader? What ever the criteria are used for selecting the leader, what is paramount is the scale of participation.

The more people that are involved, the more democratic the procedure is likely to be.

In countries with multi-ethnic communities, the party needs to balance carefully the spread of the leadership among the different groups. For instance, the leadership of some political parties in Southern Africa is dominated by people from one region or the other. In Mozambique, for example, FRELIMO is known to be led by people from the southern part of the country. In Angola, the leadership of MPLA is dominated by mulattos (mixed race) and people from the coastal regions at the expense of the majority of the people from the interior. The leadership of SWAPO in Namibia is similarly dominated by the Ovambo from the north vis-à-vis the other groups. Common sense dictates that in order to have stability and to avoid splits, other ethnic groups need to be sufficiently represented in the top hierarchy of the party.

Finally, in order to foster greater internal democracy in the party, there is need to adopt a deliberate policy of a quota system which reserves a certain percentage for ethnic minorities. This should also include a gender quota which defines the minimum percentage of female candidates in the party leadership as well as representatives in parliament. The quota system can also be extended to the youth who form the largest segment of the population. In this way, any political party that wants to avoid being consigned to the museum of antiquities, can gain greater cohesion and be able to march into the future with greater confidence.



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