The ANC has lost nearly half-a-million members. Or has it? And will that matter in the 2016 election?

In brief:

  • Even though membership has taken a dive since the high of the 2012 centenary celebrations, there are still 24% more members in 2015 than than there were in 2007.
  • The party also has more members now than it did before the last local government elections in 2011.
  • Only the Free State and the Eastern Cape have fewer members now than they did eight years ago.

The ANC’s membership has fallen by well over a third in the past three years, according to numbers published in a report presented by secretary general Gwede Mantashe at the party’s national general council meeting on October 9. The party is clearly disappointed: having met the target set in 1942 for the ANC to have a million members by its 100th birthday in 2012, only to lose 450 187 of them three years later.

With local government elections coming up in less than a year, does this drop indicate that fewer votes will be cast for the ANC in 2016?

“A good party must have a membership equal to 5% of the population. The ANC should ideally have 2.5-million members to be competitive,” Mantashe said in his 2012 organisational report.

The ANC is heading into the 2016 local government elections with just under 770 000 – or 1.4% of the population – which is far short of Mantashe’s target. Yet the ANC still managed to win elections in 2009, 2011 and 2014 without the ideal 2.5-million members.

In theory, the more members the party has, the more visible its presence will be in the electoral wards and the better the organisational machinery will run. But quantity isn’t necessarily everything, it also needs “quality” members who are actively involved in the organisation.

Too much is being made of the decrease in membership numbers, Stephen Grootes wrote in the Daily Maverick. “The original massive figure [of 2012] was inflated anyway, as it happened just before the ANC’s 2012 Mangaung Conference.” And, anyway, it’s not only party members who vote for the ANC.

He may have a point. There was indeed a huge increase in numbers between the national general council meeting in 2010 and the 2012 national conference that marked the 100th birthday of the ANC. The membership numbers are back to roughly what they were in 2010 – albeit 3% higher, which is not much of an increase.

The ANC is clearly worried about losing voter support, particularly in the big metro municipalities, three of which are in Gauteng (Tshwane, Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni) and one is in the Eastern Cape (Nelson Mandela Bay). So it’s worth taking a look at its provincial membership numbers to see how they have changed.

The biggest drop in numbers has been in KwaZulu-Natal, President Jacob Zuma’s home province, where the party lost half of its members between 2012 and 2015. In 2012, KwaZulu-Natal contributed nearly a third (27%) of the party’s total membership, but it shed about 174 000 members and now its share of national membership is down to 21%.

The Free State and Limpopo also lost around half of their members between 2012 and 2015. Gauteng and the Eastern Cape lost just over a third of their members, but their proportion of the national membership remains roughly the same.

Taking a longer-term view, just in case the 2012 numbers were the result of a rush of 100th birthday excitement, Gwede Mantashe’s most recent stats show that KwaZulu-Natal was not always the ANC’s biggest province. Eight years ago, the Eastern Cape provided a quarter of the ANC’s members. In 2007 Thabo Mbeki, who was from the Eastern Cape, was the president. By 2010, Jacob Zuma had replaced Mbeki and his home province of KwaZulu-Natal became the province with the most members.

The province whose membership has increased the most over the past eight years, however, is Mpumalanga. Its numbers have grown 76%, from 55 000 in 2007 to 97 000 in 2015. Even Gauteng’s membership has increased by nearly 50% since 2007. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Gauteng is South Africa’s most populated province – about a quarter of the population lives there – so the fact that it contributes only 11% of the ANC’s membership could be a worry for the local government elections.

Only two provinces have seen drops in their member numbers since 2007, the Eastern Cape (by 19%) and the Free State (by 17%).

Shortly after Mantashe presented his organisational report, the ANC’s deputy secretary general, Jessie Duarte, threw a spanner in the works with a tweet that appeared to contradict Mantashe’s membership numbers, saying the party had over 1.3-million members.

Then the party’s head of elections, Nomvula Mokonyane, told News24 there were 200 000 new members not counted in the audit because they were on the six-month’s probation required for all new members by a resolution taken at the 2012 party conference. Those new members would raise the total back up to around the million mark.

Mokonyane added that the party would soon implement a more modern membership system.

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