• Mmusi Maimane. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS

  • Jacob Zuma. Picture: AFP PHOTO/JOHN MACDOUGALL

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LEAKS. They are the bane of political parties everywhere. In SA, though, the problem is acute for both the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA), the country’s two biggest parties.

Frequently, the deliberations of their highest decision-making structures, which rely on confidentiality for honest and open discussion, appear in the newspapers long before they have been disseminated to the party itself. And, the parties claim, the information is often distorted or inaccurate, leaked by a vested interest with the purpose of driving a particular agenda.

Each party has its own particular circumstances which fuel this phenomenon.

A few are universal, and vested interests, noble or ignoble, are the most common.

Size, too, plays a role, which is something the DA is finding out the hard way — the bigger the party, the more potential for unhappiness and the harder it is to maintain unity and discipline.

In the ANC, unhappiness and discontent is augmented by a culture of patronage and nepotism. When personality and proximity to power — as opposed to merit or competence — play such a big role in decision making, inevitably discrediting and promoting individuals becomes the order of the day. Tenders — a mechanism for personal enrichment — also become the nexus for disappointment and resentment.

In both cases it would seem rarely is the motivation to leak information to the media born of genuine concern for democratic best practice, rather in order to take revenge or clear the path for some other interest to rise to the fore.

The DA’s circumstance is different. One of the consequences of Mmusi Maimane’s landslide election is the absolute decimation of any internal opposition or alternative centre of power inside the party. This might seem counterintuitive since it is the political dream of any leader to have a huge 89% majority win, but such as supermajority comes at a cost.

Political parties operate like pressure valves. No matter how unified they may appear there are always competing interests and concerns. The election of any leader automatically generates internal opposition, if not at their election, then as their term plays itself out. For every decision there are consequences, and people who feel aggrieved or who simply disagree. It is the inevitable result of power in action. Naturally such pressure seeks an outlet to be expressed and heard. Without one it builds up and seeks other means of release.

This is one of the reasons why internal competition is healthy for a political party. It generates a way to formalise grievances and have them presented to party powers via internal structures. Done properly and maturely, it acts as a release mechanism. People feel heard. They might not win out at the end of the day but they have a sense there is a power base inside the party able to represent them and their interests.

This is not to suggest that healthy internal competition solves all problems. It is a relative measure. There will always be leaks. But it does act to reduce the problem. As things stand in the DA, there is no alternative centre of power; at least not nationally. There are factions in some provinces. But, ultimately, there is no personality inside the party who is an alternative to Maimane.

Nor does it suggest that an alternative power centre is intrinsically healthy. It can prove divisive and destructive if not vested in internal democracy and if it is set on power at any cost.

It is to a large degree an unsolvable problem. No party seemingly united behind their leader in the way the DA is would willingly introduce or promote an alternative power centre; that would create more problems than solutions. So the problem remains: there is no internal release mechanism and, inevitably, party members who feel hard done by or aggrieved turn to the media.

Leaks, whether from inside government or a political party, are a morally fraught practice.

Distilling those leaks that serve some greater good from those that seek unfairly to harm or damage, and are false or misleading, can be difficult. Often it is not possible, from the media’s perspective, to tell one from the other. A leak may seem important and in the public interest, be verifiable and true, but ultimately serve some nefarious internal purpose anyway.

And anonymous leaks only worsen the problem. Sometimes anonymity is essential, such as when the consequences of taking a public stand would outweigh the value of the information itself. At other times it is a convenient smokescreen to be able to say and reveal things with an ostensible authority that might otherwise be reduced if the person’s real position and circumstances were to be made known.

The ANC and the DA suffer at the hands of these anonymous sources all the time, many of them bitter and resentful and without verifiable information. But the carrot they offer is almost irresistible to many journalists. The media has much to answer for on this front. In the drive for news and sensation — often determined by who is fighting with whom — it has helped to create an environment in which the majority of "news" centres on internal fights and confrontation.

Internal politics is important when it comes to understanding power in practice and the consequences thereof, but it is by no means the be-all and end-all of politics. Policy plays a vital, if not more important, role too. After all, at the end of the day, it is policy that affects lives directly, not disagreements.

Naturally, both political parties downplay the role that an internal culture of authoritarianism plays in generating anonymous leaks. If the media has much to answer for then so do they; certainly when it comes to policy.

It’s a vicious circle. Ideally there should be nothing wrong with any public representative stating their public disagreement with a policy or practice. Done honestly and upfront, this is a cornerstone of healthy disagreement.

But if public disagreement is automatically punished by a political party, leaking is encouraged, not discouraged.

In turn, if any such disagreement is immediately defined by the press as evidence of personality-based friction and dealt with immaturely — sensationalised and presented first and foremost as evidence of some or other bitter feud — the point and value of the disagreement is lost on everyone.

The debate is no longer about what the best policy solution is and becomes all about power and personal prejudice, to be used as evidence of discord and not healthy disagreement.

How does anyone in this environment openly and honestly present a disagreement to the public without being instantaneously turned into an aggrieved and vengeful menace?

Likewise, without eliciting the party’s ire at having spoken out without being vetted and approved? Where honest disagreement is the cause of concern (as opposed to subterfuge) what are they to do other than rely on anonymity?

SA’s two biggest political parties, together with the media, have created an environment where immaturity, fear and sensation have done serious harm to open and honest disagreement. Our national debate is like a school playground, with people gossiping and honestly disagreeing in equal measure, the one indistinguishable from the other and both treated as mortal sins. It is a sorry, pathetic state of affairs.

Both parties seem incapable of introspection. Neither is willing to admit any fault on their own part and the result is a culture of political gossip that detracts from the nature and impact of the hard decisions that affect people’s lives.

There are many dangerous, self-serving, petty and vengeful leaks out there; they deal in hate and disinformation in a drive for power or embarrassment. Likewise, there are many honest public representatives who wish for a broader, open discussion about party policy and practice in the public’s best interest. It would seem neither the media nor political parties can tell one from the other, and their respective internal cultures are causing more harm than good.

Time for everyone to grow up.