The Union Buildings in Pretoria, the official seat of the South African government, was the backdrop for talks between President Jacob Zuma and US President Barack Obama. The Head of State is visiting the country this weekend.
Enter the phrase “ANC internal” into Google and Google Instant Search suggests “ANC internal politics” and ANC internal problems”. And nothing else. Study how Google creates its suggestions and you’ll find that it’s based on real search activity, with popularity and relevance being the two key factors. Enter the same phrase using “DA”, “Democratic Alliance”, “Republicans”, “Tories”, “Zanu-PF” and you get no suggestions. For “Democrats” you get “improvements”. OK maybe the guys at Google are democrats. For “Anglo American internal” you get “vacancies”, “audit” and “communications”. For “Wits internal” you get “league”, “netball league” and “medicine department”.
It’s rough science, and the obvious defence will be to point to the profile of those who are doing the searches that contribute to the data, and mark them as disgruntled white people. I don’t have that data at hand, so I can’t test that. I did follow the Google suggestions for “ANC internal politics” and found, for example, this article posted in late 2012 – just pre-Mangaung – by Zwelethu Jolobe, a lecturer of political studies at UCT, on the SA Reconciliation Barometer Blog. Phrases actually used in that article include: “intra-party competition”, “leadership contestation”, “internal political competition”, “cabals” and “circulation of elites”. It ends with the statement that “organised political competition has become [the ANC’s] lifeblood”. The other most recent and highly ranked articles returned by that search phrase are all by respected political columnists and all reinforce the impression of an organization that is being consumed by internal strife while the only place for people who challenge the current leadership structures is, well, outside. Think Lekota, Malema, Ramphele.
Let’s go back to the beginning. The search I had intended making was “ANC internal leadership”, and so I went back and I tried it. Two of the articles produced by the “internal politics” search ranked most highly. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, I decided. The search had been prompted by the possibility, raised by the DA and given legs by a Constitutional Court decision last week, of a no-confidence debate in Parliament. What’s the point, I wondered – apart from the DA simply making the point – if ANC MPs are required to vote in the direction that the party dictates, which is my understanding of how the party operates? The Protection of Information Bill is a case in point and, more recently, a group of councillors voted against the ANC mayor in Tlokwe – and were only saved from expulsion by a bureaucratic bungle.
Is blind obedience the case and if so, what does it mean for the organization, I wanted to know? Can it lead – can it even survive – if it’s all about obedience and acquiescence? Is there room for internal leaders to challenge – not only privately but in public too? What would that do for the organization if they could? What is it doing to the organization if they can’t?
My calls to Luthuli House went unanswered. The constitution on its website revealed nothing.
A culture of divide and rule
Still, I wanted a leadership answer, not a political one. So I called Jonathan Cook, director of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) of the University of Pretoria. He cautioned against applying private sector principles too simplistically to political or public sector organizations. The latter need to preserve their ethos of service as their driving motive. Having said that, he agreed that “most of how to lead is common to all environments”.
So are we seeing a phenomenon of conformity and fear within the ANC? He agreed that we are seeing more coercion than leadership and added that, firstly, this is not uncommon across political organizations and, secondly, that “it seems to be a strong characteristic of South African organizations in general at the moment. There seems to be a culture of coercion, defensiveness almost vindictiveness and of ruling by dividing people into us and them. It’s quite pervasive.” He was not able to offer any ideas on what could be driving this, though he agreed it is contrary to the great spirit in which this country’s democracy was established.
So what would good leadership look like then? “Leaders have to help [an] organization confront the truth about itself and make difficult choices. The leadership that is required now [in the ANC] is to lead the organization to a better version of itself. To date it has only engaged in political activities, where success is defined by access to power. That works in politics, but not in leading a country. The latter requires you to set a direction for the whole and then empower the whole to function.”
He concedes that it’s a tedious and overworked example, yet still he points to Mandela as someone who was able to do that. “Mandela had the leadership authority and the courage to pull off risky and innovative decisions – and to delegate. He was innovative, courageous, empowering and he had the maturity to hand over power.” Then he says what is perhaps the most important and relevant point: that Mandela was able to do that because “he had the whole country’s interests in mind, rather than one section. Therefore he had no need to fear handing over power because there was no ‘us’ and therefore no ‘them’ to take revenge.” He adds that leaders have to be courageous enough to force followers to face difficult realities without losing the connection to them and “that requires transcending the ‘them’ and making everyone into an ‘us’. This is not currently happening within the ANC. Those [factions] who have taken control are taking steps to exclude those who did not.”
Examples from the commercial world
So what real world examples can we look to for the consequences of such inclusive versus divisive leadership styles? For the positive example he points to FNB and the impact of outgoing CEO Michael Jordaan, whom he says exercised the kind of courage alluded to earlier: he set the direction – to innovate – and then truly empowered the company to do just that. This, he adds, came out of an empowering culture that already existed in the First Rand Group as a whole, created by its founders Paul Harris, Laurie Dippenaar and GT Ferreira. For the converse example he points to the Enron case in America. “They created paranoia by pitting employees against each other. This can be energising, but it was done in a way that led to people undermining each other rather than collaborating.”
How do we know which is which? “Well usually the test of whether to follow a leader who is swimming against the tide is to ask, Is he or she doing it for the greater good, or for their own good? You look at their motives. That’s one of the main criteria.”
A study of the literature reveals that negative internal politics gets defined as “strategies people use to seek advantage at the expense of others or the greater good”. That’s interesting. Conversely, a healthy environment is one where the internal politics serves the best idea and the greater good. You get a chance to fairly promote yourself and your cause, and this is called networking and stakeholder management.
In other words, internal politics is inevitable, and can be either positive or negative. Positive when it’s about making sure your projects succeed because you believe in them for the greater good. Negative when it’s about ensuring your survival. Negative because when people are serving themselves and not the greater good, then they tend to manipulate information, which means it does not get passed on in its desired form. Superiors get incorrect information and the wrong people get credit. Hard work goes unrewarded. Stress levels increase. Attention is on the wrong things, and so productivity suffers. It’s a downward spiral, and it is driven by people who do not believe in their abilities, who do not believe in hard work.
Is the ANC exhibiting leadership and is it qualified to lead? What would you say?