William Gumede | Political parties are not a football club. Internal laws needed to run properly

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The ANC as the dominant party since 1994 has run the country as a party-state, writes the author.
The ANC as the dominant party since 1994 has run the country as a party-state, writes the author.
Tebogo Letsie, Gallo Images

William Gumede argues that political parties should introduce internal party democracy law to ensure that they prudently manage public funds given to them but also conduct their affairs in a democratic manner.

Political parties that receive public funding, propose laws, nominate elected representatives, and appoint government officials are not private clubs, but are public institutions that wield massive power over citizens. They must be held accountable for managing their funds, how they conduct their internal operations and how they elect their leaders. 

Because they are public institutions, political parties must be regulated to ensure that they conduct their internal affairs and elect leaders democratically, make their leadership structures diverse, ensure gender equality with reasonable youth and ethnic diversity, and prudently manage public funds given to them to run internal party operations. 

Run like a spaza shop 

South African political parties, their leaders and members often wrongly view parties as private clubs, almost like football teams, such as Kaizer Chiefs or Amazulu, exclusively for card-carrying members and loyalists and closed to the public. In other cases, parties are often seen as "owned" by the leader who started the party, and then run almost as a spaza shop or family concern, with the leader appointing and firing members and using party funds for personal use without regard for internal democracy and accountability.  

Political parties form a pillar of South Africa's constitutional system. Citizens are mainly represented through political parties. Voters do not directly elect public representatives or the president – the parties do. Given the power of political parties in the South African constitutional system, they are poorly regulated. There are very few regulations to hold political parties accountable, beyond the fact that voters can refuse to vote for them. 

READ | Concerning that only 3 parties disclosed party funding, say interest groups

Many South African politicians also learn their political behaviour, beliefs and attitudes from the parties they are members of. 

The political culture, the widely shared beliefs, values and ways of doing things of political parties dominate how governments are run. This also determines the kind of people they nominate to become political representatives, how public finances are managed, and how they engage in public discourse. 

If the political culture of a party, which is in government, makes it acceptable to partake in corruption, for leaders to behave autocratically, where violence is deemed acceptable and where representatives are elected based on loyalty, ethnicity or struggle credentials, rather than merit, such political culture will be replicated at government level. 


The ANC as the dominant party since 1994 has run the country as a party-state, where the party was seen by their leaders and members as synonymous with the state – as the party deployed its cadres to every level of the government, SOEs, democratic institutions and as beneficiaries of government tenders. The political culture of the ANC became the administrative culture of the state. 

Political party regulation is weak on at least three aspects. South Africa needs a law to enforce a change of party political cultures from one that is undemocratic, violent, gender-unfriendly, patriarchycal-hostile to youth and leadership structures absent of ethnic diversity, to one that is democratic, non-violent, fosters gender equality and inclusiveness and have ethnically diverse leadership structures and internal discourses. 

This should be included in a new internal party democracy law, which would compel parties to democratically conduct their internal workings or lose their public funding or registration.  

- William Gumede is Executive Chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation and author of 'Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times' (Tafelberg). 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.  
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