James Myburgh's defence

Article published in Sunday Independent April 15 2001

ANC's deployment committees are the faithful progeny of Stalinism


Sunday Independent April 15 2001

Kader Asmal's defence of President Thabo Mbeki's leadership (The Sunday Independent April 8) comes across as a case of a man protesting a bit too much. Asmal seems more interested in proving his loyalty than in responding to the substance of the critique.

However, in his piece and in Colin Legum's two substantive objections were raised: Asmal claims that - stripped of "cold war rhetoric" - the ANC doctrine of democratic centralism "corresponds exactly" with the party structure and discipline of liberal democratic parties.

Legum calls for "more convincing evidance" that Mbeki is guided by totalitarian ideas. This article will therefore focus on spelling out the ANC doctrine of democratic centralism, its application in South Africa and its intellectual origins.

In the process, I will answer both objections. According to Kgalema Motlanthe, the ANC secretary-general, the party is guided by "the principles of democratic centralism".

This means, firstly, that although debate and discussion are permitted beforehand, once the central party structure has reached a decision, "maximum political discipline" prevails and all ANC members are bound to "abide by, defend and implement these decisions".

Thus, ANC members in whatever sphere - whether in the public service, the legislatures or in statutory bodies - are obliged to implement the decisions of the party leadership. As ANC members in the public service were once told: "You are not ANC cadres only ‘after hours'."

The practical means by which the party ensures that "iron discipline" prevails is by concentrating control over appointment and promotion in the hands of "deployment committees."

The effect of this is to limit severely any real debate because all positions (within party and state) are controlled or confirmed by the party leadership which proposes policy.

These committees were established by a resolution of the ANC's national conference in December 1997. The resolution tasked these committees (to be established at all levels of the government) with identifying key centres of power within state and society, deploying cadres to these centres, and ensuring that they remained accountable to the party after deployment.

The origins of these committees can be traced back to 1939 when, towards the end of the purges, Stalin called for "the work of studying, promoting and selecting cadres" to be concentrated in one body, "the cadres administration of the central committee of the Communist Party"; and, for the establishment of "a corresponding cadres department in each of the republican, territorial and regional Party organisations." (Report to the 18th Congress of the CPSU, March 10 1939)

These committees subsequently became a defining feature of eastern European regimes. For instance, Timothy Garton Ash wrote that in communist Poland "the party controls not only the appointment of its own full-time officials, known collectively as the apparat, but also all the most important appointments in almost every walk of life. For this purpose, the party's central, regional and local committees maintain lists of positions, and the people judged fit to till them".
The ANC's national working committee established the national deployment committee in November 1998. The cadre policy and deployment strategy, adopted at the same time to guide the work of the committee, lists as its objectives: the strengthening of "political and administrative control" over legislatures,

party structures, and the civil service; and of ANC leadership in "all parastatals and statutory bodies" and "in all other areas of social activity".

Among the immediate "practical steps" to be taken were the setting up of deployment committees "at all levels", the auditing both "of all positions available", and of the "skills of all our cadreship". The report of last year's ANC national general council states that while "the movement is not yet in control of all levers of state power" the ANC has "achieved considerable progress in the deployment of political and administrative heads".

The report calls for the tightening of party control at middle-management level and for "cadre deployment" to educational institutions, "to ensure they fulfil the objectives of social transformation."
Thus, while South Africa is clearly not a totalitarian society it is certainly governed by a party with totalitarian aspirations.

The differences between the democratic centralist system the ANC is trying to establish, and the (limited) party discipline practised in liberal democratic systems are fairly self-evident and I will not bore the former dean of law by spelling them out.

Anthony Holiday has written "The idea that the good society can and should sustain islands of political neutrality, even (perhaps especially) in spheres of public life where political interests may be intensely at stake, belongs to the liberal political philosophy."

The ANC of Mbeki, on the other hand, starts from the quite different principle that (to quote Arthur Koestier) "a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows. but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community".