Intra-party Democracy: How Democratic Are South Africa's Political Parties?

Partner Publication

South Africa is one of the many modern constitutional democracies where the internal organisation of political parties is not regulated according to internal party democracy or intra-party democracy (IPD) provisions. Consequently, over centralisation and the abuse of power within the country's political parties is a systemic problem, and one which has significant ramifications for democracy both during elections, as well as between them. This original research by My Vote Counts (MVC) sheds light on parties' processes and policies and aims to inform future decision making on the subject.

Political parties are reluctant to share information or liaise on how they operate internally. In a democratic country such as South Africa, it is important that this information be made available to the public as evidence that parties are in fact democratic within themselves. This or lack thereof may be seen as an indication of how they may conduct themselves in public office.

Internal Party Democracy (IPD) can be understood as a set of requirements that political parties can and should use to allow for fair participation of its members. These include decentralising power instead of having it concentrated in one leader or a few members of the party, as well as inclusivity – allowing equal involvement of members in electing leadership, and policy formulation.

As part of MVC's research, it sent a questionnaire titled, “How Democratic Are You: An Intra-party democracy (IPD) Questionnaire”, to every political party represented in the National Assembly (NA). The questions were informed by IPD themes which include membership audits, intra-party elections, accountability, policy-making and party constitutions, as well as disciplinary procedures among others.

Although most political parties did not respond, MVC managed to find evidence that suggests that some political parties may not be as democratic as they claim to be. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) for example has delayed their elective conferences. The party has hereby failed to abide by the five-year and three-year terms for their National Executive Committee (NEC) and National Council (NC) respectively, as mentioned in their constitution.

Concentrated power – and by extension – the abuse of this power, infringes on fair participation of party members. The ANC, regardless of its Gender and Affirmative Action rule seems to exclude women from senior positions. The rule states that a quota of at least 50% of women must be reached in all elected structures of the party and yet, the “top six” structure is not bound by this rule.

It is not enough for political parties to claim that they are democratic in their internal operations if there is little or no evidence to suggest this, or even contradictory evidence. There are many more inconsistencies found by MVC in parties’ actual internal conduct that are in contrast to what is stated in respective constitutions; this includes both the Democratic Alliance (DA) as well as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

More research and dissemination of information will be done by MVC, by holding IPD workshops in various communities.

For the full research report, click here.

For the policy brief, click here.