LAST weekend’s provincial conference of the African National Congress (ANC) in Gauteng may be a watershed moment for the post-apartheid liberation movement. The province re-elected Paul Mashatile as its chairman, despite his support for the removal of Jacob Zuma from the ANC presidency. Mashatile’s success has come hard on the heels of David Makhura’s elevation to the provincial premiership and is not merely a symbolic assertion of independence.

The discussion documents that were the basis for deliberation at the conference reaffirmed the centrality of modernisation in the politics of the ANC, in a rebuttal of the tribalist and traditionalist approach of the Zuma camp.

The provincial party rejected e-tolling and proposed to replace it with an increased fuel levy. Strong support was expressed for the National Development Plan. The province’s "base document" observed that public policy must be made in a "global environment … dominated by a capitalist system", in contrast to the empty socialistic fantasies propagated by many tripartite alliance structures.

Gauteng hosts a young and politically fluid population, including almost half of the country’s new "black middle strata". Noting that "we can’t take their support for granted", provincial leaders evidently view the choice of policies such as e-tolling — and leaders such as Zuma — as a form of slow political suicide.

These expressions of independence point to the emergence of a wider debate about the distribution of power within the ANC. Luthuli House monopolises access to national state resources. The national faction can also use public sector trade union allies and the South African Communist Party to bully recalcitrant provinces. But sub-national party structures are engaged in a struggle for a greater share of power. Where the threat of electoral defeat is added to the mix, resistance to central authority will grow.

In their chapter in a forthcoming book titled Remaking the ANC, political scientists Kenneth Greene and Hector Ibarra-Rueda show how the struggle for power of sub-national units in Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ultimately benefited the party as a whole.

These expressions of independence point to the emergence of a wider debate about the distribution of power within the ANC. Luthuli House monopolises access to national state resources. The national faction can also use public sector trade union allies and the South African Communist Party to bully recalcitrant provinces.

PRI dominated politics in Mexico for the 70 years after 1929, using state power and resources to buy votes, distribute patronage and, when necessary, to repress stubborn political opponents. When it lost power in the 2000 presidential elections, many observers expected it would disappear. But it was able to win power back. And the key element in its resurrection, say Greene and Ibarra-Rueda, was the fact that authority had become more evenly distributed between the party centre and the states (provinces) in the years immediately before the 2000 defeat.

State leaders were better able to adapt to political competition than their national counterparts. They could respond directly to people’s aspirations, fashioning the party’s language and priorities to meet local needs and demands.

This was not a harmonious settlement. The national party leadership tried repeatedly to centralise control but it was beaten back by increasingly determined and desperate provincial organisations.

The PRI’s centre remained powerful, controlling much of the candidate selection process and distributing public party political funding.

Over time, however, a power-sharing settlement emerged that ceded state leaders greater financial autonomy, control over local candidate processes, and the right to fashion local policy platforms. The increasingly autonomous provincial structures were able to keep state governorships out of opposition hands after 2000. Ultimately, they enabled the PRI to recapture national power in 2012.

Gauteng’s struggle for a more even balance between central and provincial authority may be the start of a search for a new ANC power-sharing formula. Such a deal could enhance the ANC’s local electoral competitiveness and retain the advantages of a single, partially integrated, national party.

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