PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma has been strongly criticised for his handling of the significant public investment in his private country residence. The public protector observed in her recent report that concerns regarding "opulent or excessive expenditure" at the private residence were expressed as early as December 2009, and that Zuma apparently took no action to investigate the alleged profligacy or to bring it to an end.

Zuma’s comment to reporters — "Why should I pay for something I did not ask for?" — again demonstrates that he is poorly suited, morally and politically, for his high office. But there are two reasons, beyond Zuma’s own remarkable self-possession under fire, why the African National Congress (ANC) has failed to encourage its president to adopt a tone that is more apologetic or even conciliatory.

First, the ANC has become an enormous and amorphous mass. Its membership has soared from 400,000 in 2002 to 620,000 in 2007, and then to more than 1.2-million by 2012. Most of these members have little knowledge of the ANC’s past and little respect for its invented historical traditions. National leaders have tended to inhabit a fantasy world in which membership growth is supposedly driven by "recruitment campaigns". In 1991, then ANC secretary-general Alfred Nzo grudgingly conceded that "if the masses are the makers of history then they must be involved in the process of decision-making".

South African Communist Party intellectual Jeremy Cronin condemned this instrumental conception of mass membership. Participation, he claimed, should not be seen as "a tap" to be turned on and off, presciently cautioning against mass "demobilisation". Under Thabo Mbeki, discipline trumped both participation and size — hence the Great Leader’s pseudo-Leninist injunction, "Better fewer, but better!"

Secretary-general Gwede Mantashe thinks big is beautiful. Perhaps inspired by the organisational department of the Chinese Communist Party, he claims the ANC needs 2.5-million members "to be competitive". More to the point, the ANC anyway "cannot deliberately stop people from joining it".

Second, while national leaders have philosophised about recruitment, the real dynamic of membership growth has actually been subnational. Expansion has been driven by the selective benefits of membership and by competition for offices and resources at lower levels of the ANC.

A recent task team on candidate list abuses observed that some businesspeople on Friday decide to join the ANC only after being nominated as one of the party’s candidates for political office. Apparent growth in members often results not from the recruitment of human beings but rather from bulk "membership buying" by rich power brokers, using bank deposit stamps on blank membership forms.

ANC members — whether real ones or their ghostly substitutes — are also instruments in leadership contests. Mantashe joked with his Mangaung conference audience that he hoped the driving force behind membership growth "was not just a desire to have more delegates to the national conference".

The great amorphous mass (the ANC, that is, not the secretary-general) has become more and more like its leader. After Polokwane, membership growth accelerated in pro-Zuma provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and the Free State.

Provinces in which Zuma has enjoyed less popularity, notably the eastern, western and northern Cape, have seen stagnant or falling membership. Of the 14% of branches that did not qualify to send delegates to the conference, most were anti-Zuma redoubts in the Eastern Cape and North West. Critics complained that Zuma’s lieutenants used their bureaucratic power at national and provincial levels to manipulate accreditation and auditing processes.

If the primary impetus behind membership growth continues to be subnational competition for offices and resources, and this heady expansion is mediated by a pro-incumbent party bureaucracy, there is little chance that the ANC will regain the organisational coherence it would need to hold its national leaders to account.

Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.