The ANC's secret premier candidates

James Myburgh on why the ruling party shouldn't delay their decision until after April 22.

On Monday this week all the political parties submitted their candidate lists to the IEC for the 2009 election. Most also did the obvious thing and announced their premier candidates for each of the nine provinces. However, the ruling African National Congress did not. It is entirely possible that the party's National Executive Committee - which has the final say on the matter - will try to save itself some internal trouble before the election by not making its final choice until after April 22. It would be unfortunate if it succumbed to this temptation. The ANC has gone down this road before. Little good came of it then, and it is difficult to see why anything good would come of it now.

In August 1998 the NEC decided to delink the premiership of each ANC controlled province from the position of provincial party chairperson. "As such" it noted in a statement, "all ANC Premiers will henceforth be selected by the relevant national structure from the pool of provincial leaders." From then onwards this decision was made by ANC president Thabo Mbeki and the party's National Working Committee. However, in 1999 the decision as to who would be the party's premier candidates was still announced well before (April 22) voters went to the polls on June 2. The sky did not fall and indeed the candidates were, with two exceptions, political heavyweights.

However, in 2004 this announcement was made several days after the electorate had cast their ballots. The Mbeki leadership could now make their decision unfettered by the need to ensure their candidate was popular either with the party or the voters. This led to a tripling of the nebbish quota among the ANC's choices for the premier positions. Such post voting day selection also meant that the premiers lacked any real mandate to govern, and their loyalty lay to those who had appointed them not to those who had unknowingly voted them into office.

Although the decision to hand Mbeki this power had been "unanimous" in 1998, over the years his capricious selections generated great resentment within ANC structures at provincial level. It was certainly one contributing factor to his downfall in December 2007. At the ANC's national conference in Polokwane, which saw the election of Jacob Zuma as party president, the provincial executive committees (PECs) clawed back some say in the choice of premier candidates. In terms of a resolution finalised by the NEC after the conference the PECs would "recommend a pool of names of not more than three cadres in order of priority who should be considered for Premiership, and the NEC will make a final decision."

On Wednesday this week the ANC released its provincial candidate lists. The obvious question was whether, as with the other parties, the candidates at no. 1 position in each of the provinces (see table below) were the ANC's candidates for premier. ANC spokesperson Jessie Duarte quickly clarified that the NEC "has NOT yet identified its candidates for the position of Premier in any of the nine provinces."

Current indications are that the NEC is only going to make an announcement on its final choices for premiers - for the provinces it still controls - only after the polls have closed. The most benign interpretation of this decision is that there are some big beasts in the provincial party structures who are not actually fit to govern - but it is impolitic to inform them that they are not going to be the party's premier candidates before the election (lest they go off in a big sulk). A more sinister interpretation would be that there are some big beasts in the provincial party structures who are not actually fit to govern - but it is impolitic to inform the country that they are going to be the ANC's premier candidates before the election (lest the electorate goes off and votes for someone else.)

Either way it would be a travesty of democracy for the ANC to blindfold South Africa's voters in this way. The premiers of each province possess certain powers which are not dissimilar to those which the president exercises at national level. In terms of the South African constitution they have the power to appoint the members of their provincial cabinet from the ranks of the legislature, and must also assign these MECs "their powers and functions, and may dismiss them."

By not making an announcement ahead of the election the ANC would be depriving the media of the ability to conduct a proper due diligence of their candidates, it would prevent the voters from making an informed decision (even if it turns out to be a mistaken one), and it would mean that the chosen candidate would lack a proper electoral mandate. This would both weaken their bond with the people of their provinces, as well as diminish their political authority. It would also be an unfortunate throwback to the Mbeki era.

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