THE recently elected leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) is focusing its energy in two distinct directions. Facing outwards, it has been promoting the National Development Plan to restore credibility to the government’s economic programme. But the leadership has also been looking nervously inwards, at the movement’s own murky entrails.

The dangers posed by unwieldy and technologically backward internal systems came into sharp focus before the Mangaung conference. Members of the "change faction" spoke darkly about the paralysis into which they would plunge the movement if they were defeated by unfair procedural means.

Few such challenges to auditing, accreditation, and delegate selection processes materialised: the margin of victory enjoyed by the Jacob Zuma slate made it impossible to contest the outcome with any credibility. But it would not be prudent to gamble with the future of the organisation in this way again. If the ANC stays cohesive in KwaZulu-Natal, a challenge to its dominance can come only from a coalition between regions in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and elsewhere.

A contest of this kind is sometimes necessary to clear the air and resolve disagreements on who is entitled to occupy key offices; coalition politics and consensus-building has its limits. But deeply contested internal elections that possess an ethnic or regional dimension can pose a threat to party survival if they do not enjoy legitimacy.

Current elective processes cannot confer such legitimacy upon leaders in a closely fought internal election. Money-fuelled lobbying plays a prominent role in every province. Cycles of money and power connect public office to ANC positions. Auditing, accreditation and record-keeping systems of all kinds are largely paper-based, where they exist at all. Political entrepreneurs everywhere have learned the dark art of membership manipulation.

Three times in every five years, the movement is paralysed by elective or candidate list processes. The weaknesses of internal systems also prevent the ANC from successfully performing the broader functions of a political party. It cannot serve as a bridge between activist citizens and the national political elite because it can neither communicate the yearnings and discontents of ordinary people upwards to the isolated leadership nor serve as an instrument for the political education and mobilisation of the poorly informed.

Mangaung delegates resolved to launch a "decade of the cadre" and rising KwaZulu-Natal star Nathi Mthethwa will chair an energised committee on political education. Incoming ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa chairs the deployment committee, tasked with developing systems to "monitor and evaluate" the performance of cadres.

Continuous membership auditing will be introduced in place of present preconference stampedes and all audits will be conducted by "experienced cadres … who understand the ANC" — probably a hint at the centralisation to come. A wider "modernisation" and "professionalisation" of the movement is also proposed, together with the introduction of IT and "progressive modern management methods".

Major obstacles confront those who wish to "modernise" the ANC. Party modernisation is time-consuming and painful and it could well be deferred once again to a future that somehow never arrives.

If new organisational systems are brought in to end the manipulation of paper records by the regions, moreover, a computer-enhanced Luthuli House could then use its technological power to impose stricter discipline on recalcitrant activists, or even to engage surreptitiously in membership and list-rigging escapades of its own.

Finally, many activists are deeply suspicious of new technologies. They claim that former president Thabo Mbeki would have been re-elected at the 2007 Polokwane conference if delegates had not insisted on manual counting. Would computerised membership data be subject to revision at a click of the secretary-general’s mouse? And could such data be protected from the dark creatures of the intelligence community who roam the internet at night?

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.