THE African National Congress (ANC) has rejected proposals to open the way it elects leaders, choosing to stick with its closed system which has been criticised for creating fertile ground for divisive politics.

In the build-up to the Mangaung conference in December, the ANC has come up with proposals meant to revitalise the party.

Some of them, on the face of it, are good suggestions that should change its image. But some will be difficult to implement, which would mean that change will remain on the lips of leaders and in reports to be filed far away.

A report of the organisational renewal committee, in the wake of the policy conference last month, is long on the need for change. The ANC is battling to change its image as a strife-stricken party.

On strengthening the party's head office, the report suggests that Luthuli House should be restructured, along five departments - Political Education and Cadreship Development, Organisation and Mass Mobilisation, Information and Publicity, Governance, Research, Monitoring and Evaluation; and International Relations. These portfolios should be headed by full-time officials - to be chosen from the National Executive Committee (NEC).

Those appointed should serve the entire five-year term and not be allowed to do other party jobs.

The ANC has admitted that Luthuli House is not adequately staffed to run the party - with a million members - and to run other political tasks, interact with different sectors of society, like the media, business and intelligentsia.

Among the most contentious of the policy conference's resolutions, is a suggestion that all those who are facing criminal charges should step aside, even before they are convicted. This is an attempt to restore the image of the party. This idea departs from a well-established principle of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

While it may be easy for companies to push aside senior executives with clouds hanging over their heads, in the world of ANC politics things are different. There is an established culture of defending those who are facing charges - however damaging the cases are to the party's name.

It is highly unlikely that the ANC in the Northern Cape will back this proposal in December, when final decisions are taken at the Mangaung electoral conference.

Their chairman, John Block, faces charges of tender fraud. He is not alone. Many ANC leaders will not be happy about giving up their positions with the influence and power associated with it, even before a court judgment. They will draw on President Jacob Zuma's experiences, who did not step down from his party positions during his tough times with the law.

On the kind of members the party attracts, there are ideas about tightening the joining process, where a new member is put on probation for six months. This period is meant for rigorous political education and community work.

There would probably be few objections to that, first, because very few people will disagree that there is little political education being done in the ANC. Also, this will fit in the category of good ideals that fall aside in the dysfunctional world of branch politics.

What will be of significance, though, is the suggestion that those elected into the NEC - the highest decision-making body in between conferences - need to have been ANC members for at least 10 years. This creates a solid barrier for successful business leaders and other eminent persons, who are not card-carrying members. They may have the skills to contribute to the ANC, but the idea of an effective 10-year probation will turn them off.

That means the ANC has to look among its ranks only, and cannot co-opt leaders from outside, says a business leader, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Take Patrice Motsepe for example, who is a highly successful business leader. He is among many potential contributors - who include business executives that talk the talk, but do not carry the black, green and gold membership cards. While the intention of this 10-year waiting period is to ensure that the party is not easily captured by newcomers, the effect is, however, that it may deprive the ANC of new ideas and fresh blood, as it goes into a trickier period of SA politics.

The party is facing a credibility crisis, as its followers wait for delivery on promises.

Elections are also becoming normalised because they are regular, free and fair. That means voters may start questioning their election choices, whether that means voting for a particular party, or staying away all together. With a competitive electoral landscape on the cards, the ANC has erred on the side of caution, and conservatism.

mkokelis@bdfm.co.za