COINED as a catchy campaign slogan for Bill Clinton’s 1992 US presidential election campaign, Chester James Carville’s "It’s the economy, stupid" has since gained worldwide recognition. It is now one of the most effective ways to focus the minds of politicians and the electorate before, during and after elections.

With the African National Congress (ANC) holding its 53rd national conference in Mangaung from Sunday, the focus has almost entirely been on the identity of those who will contest the party’s top leadership positions. It is normal for electoral contests to generate interest, but it is also a reflection of the increasing desire for better leadership to respond to our challenges.

Many assume that a mere change in leadership will deliver better results and stabilise the listing vessel that is our republic. This sentiment is understandable but it is also an extremely naive delusion. The roots of this conclusion lie in the apparent goings-on ahead of the conference and what will ensue after its conclusion.

The process of selecting delegates has been fiercely contested. Depending on the faction that holds sway in each province, there has been careful exclusion of many who are deemed to support an opposing slate. There have also been many allegations of vote-rigging and hefty bribes paid to some delegates to cast their ballot one way or another. Reportedly, the price tag on a vote in Mangaung now has a significant premium on a nomination vote just two weeks earlier.

A heavily contaminated nomination process means the rest of the electoral process lacks legitimacy. Whoever gets elected out of such a process will be tainted. The ANC can no longer claim legitimacy on the basis of electoral victory in general elections when its internal process is so corrupted. As several ANC leaders have noted, it also means that those who are elected on the wave of these shenanigans have to reward the shadowy operators who facilitated the fraud. This is generally through the government procurement system or posts in the public service.

The conference will make promising pronouncements against corruption but it is difficult to see how leaders elected through a corrupt process will now act against their backers when they expect rewards. If anything, the aftermath of the conference will accelerate the frightening perversion of the difference between right and wrong.

This will, no doubt, affect our ability or lack thereof to deal with corruption even more, as our standing in the corruption perception index has worsened over time. Political good and evil will increasingly exist side by side in the ANC, the state and, menacingly, society.

This perversion is no more visible than in various institutions whose independence is guaranteed by the constitution. The tainting of the election process and the expectation of material rewards for political supporters outside of the normal rules of competition almost certainly mean that the law and various principles underpinning our constitutional order will be broken.

It all sounds abstract until you consider that, at some point, a person elected through a tainted electoral process, which included violent intimidation, bribes and possible electoral fraud, will have the power to make appointments such as a new national director of public prosecutions. The astonishing expectation is that this person will look for a candidate who will diligently prosecute some or many of those who supported him on the way to high office. It is also expected that the police will be allowed to vigorously investigate crimes arising directly out of a patronage system whose purpose is to reward political foot soldiers to guarantee their support. In some instances, these investigations may point to powerful individuals who inhabit the inner circle of the ruling party. In other words, we will expect that they follow the constitution in both letter and spirit. This reasoning is irrational.

After the Mangaung conference, we shall see a slew of new suspensions and acting appointments, the cancellation of existing contractual arrangements and the signing of new ones. This will be done in the name of either following new policy resolutions or fighting corruption. Some of these cases will be genuine but others will be dishonest and only for the purpose of pursuing further corruption and cronyism. Frighteningly, it will become almost impossible to determine which is which. It is the ultimate deception — when both good and evil wear the cloak of electoral and democratic legitimacy. It is also the tipping point at which the entire democratic and constitutional system can lose its legitimacy in the eyes of the majority.

The shenanigans in the Nelson Mandela metropolitan area are a perfect example. Suspensions are common, as are acting appointments. Meanwhile, the city had to do without toilet paper in public ablution facilities for a few days last month. Earlier, the mayor was locked up in the ANC’s regional office against his will. This allegedly followed a heated discussion with ANC colleagues over tenders and crony appointments.

The Mangaung conference will have much to say about different policy actions and the renewal of the ANC in the face of its degenerative problems. There will be talk of radical change and so on but very little or nothing on how to clean up our rotten politics. It will be as if the delegates expect a breath of fresh air from a squalid process.

The ANC is rapidly running out of ideas, primarily because it appears to believe in proposing a different approach to old problems without changing the behaviours and principles that have seen it fail at implementation in the past. Cadres will still be deployed to strategic positions at the expense of harvesting the skills and experience of those who exist outside its own internal axis. After much promise, they will also fail and take the country closer to the precipice as the masses get increasingly impatient.

Democracy is meaningless if the political parties that participate in it are tainted and riddled with problems.

It will produce flawed leaders who transfer their personal and political vices to various institutions designed to make democracy meaningful and just. In doing so, they will give democracy a bad name and turn the majority of citizens against the very idea of a democratic system.

In addition to chanting the names of preferred leaders, or proposing desperate solutions to problems that need a committed implementation of the basics, the ANC’s delegates will do well to reflect on the effect of their organisational culture on the state and the national psyche. We face the prospect of being unable to tell between good and evil and right and wrong.

Citizens will continue to side with dubious characters and causes because, like everyone else, they hide behind democratic and ethical principles while causing untold damage to the country. Despite our wretched economic prospects, the slogan in this conference should be: It’s the politics, stupid.

Zibi is from the Midrand Group.