The anatomy of a faction: a negative tendency

“One form of struggle which we consider to be fundamental is the struggle against our own weaknesses” (Amilcar Cabral, 1966).


This article is not intended to provide a thorough, detailed and complete reflection on the topic. Rather, it is intended as an overview that will furnish the reader with a rudimentary understanding of a very complex topic in comparative politics, and prepare the reader for a more in-depth consideration of select themes on factionalism discussed in subsequent subheadings. To have effective discussions on this topic, two binary extremes must be avoided. The first extreme is the denialist perspective. This perspective might dismiss the importance of a systematic discussion on factionalism as the ANC is regarded as a monolithic party, integrated by ideology and organisation, maintained by discipline and a strong leadership.

The second extreme is the alarmist perspective, whereby some ANC members might regard such discussions as absolutely necessary because the contemporary ANC is colonised and engulfed by factions. Approaching the discussion from either of the extremes may stifle, pollute and weaken the discourse on factionalism. This article suggests that the plausible approach for such discussions is the moderate perspective, which is premised on the acceptance that the ANC, like any other political party in a modern democracy, is not insulated from factionalism as factions are pathology of modern politics and are a negative tendency that must be understood.


In a letter from prison to the Kabwe Consultative Conference in 1985, Nelson Mandela describes unity in the ANC as “the bedrock upon which the ANC was founded.” This statement underscores the high premium the ANC places on party unity and internal cohesion and is emphatically reinforced in the Organizational Renewal (2012) document, which states that,“ the unity of the ANC is sacrosanct.” The ANC has an extensive history of emphasising unity over internal divisions. In the mid-20th century the ANC adopted policy practices such as democratic centralism and collective leadership with which to strengthen internal party cohesion and homogeneity. These practices were institutionalised to discourage factionalism. Notwithstanding these practices, the disconcerting reality is that party unity has been constantly subjected to factional strains; particularly in the run-up to elective conferences.

Since its inception, the ANC has convened 53 National Conferences and there have been twelve presidents. In 1960, the ANC was banned by the apartheid regime and after thirty years, in 1990, it was unbanned. Since then, six National Elective Conferences have been held. Before 1990, there was little broad interest in the elective conferences of the ANC other than among its members and active supporters. However, the Durban 1991 National Conference generated significant interest just a year after the unbanning of South African liberation movements. The attention thus garnered derived from the recognition of the ANC as the leading political force in the country. Observers and supporters alike knew that whoever emerged as the President of the ANC in 1991 would most likely also be the first President of a democratic South Africa.

Since then, the levels of interest in ANC conferences have increased exponentially. Whenever the ANC convenes a National Conference there is widespread interest in the leadership and policy changes that are being signalled. This heightened level of interest arises because leaders elected in ANC conferences soon assume state leadership positions and policies adopted by the ANC get translated into state policies. Disconcertingly, however, each time the ANC approaches conferences, particularly in the post-1994 political milieu, there are widespread accusations that factions in the ANC are holding the country to ransom.

In 2012, comrade Gwede Mantashe, the Secretary General of the ANC, asserted that “the vibrant and robust engagements by ANC members on leadership and policy matters should not be construed as factions” because this is normal in an open and democratic organisation like the ANC (Sunday Times, 18 November). In the same vein he rebuked members of the ANC who engaged in “widespread” unorthodox forms of intra-party political participation such as threats, violence, dispensing of patronage, and manipulation of members and organisational processes.

It has become customary for ANC leaders to bemoan factionalism and the negative impact it has on party unity. Both the ANC President and the Secretary General in the reports presented to the 2012 National Conference attributed the divisions in the ANC mainly to the work of factions. The policy document titled Organisational Renewal (2012) forthrightly states that “… the political life of the organisation revolves around permanent internal strife and factional battles for power. This is a silent retreat from mass-line to palace politics of factionalism and perpetual infighting”. This policy document infers that factionalism is an informal custom in the ANC.

The ANC is a hierarchical, ethnically and ideologically diverse organisation and contestation for positions is a long held tradition. Before 1994 the process of electing leaders was substantially less complex. In the post-1994 dispensation the election process involves an elaborate and intricate process of branch and provincial nominations culminating in National Conferences. The process towards and indeed during conferences is characterised by fierce leadership and policy contestations, which in some instances escalates into factional activities.

It would be disingenuous not to mention that all ANC leaders, without exception, condemn factional activities as articulated in the timeless assertion by comrade OR Tambo that “Be vigilant comrades. The enemy is vigilant. Beware the wedge-driver. Men who creep from ear to ear driving wedges among us; who go around creating splits and divisions. Beware the wedge-driver, watch his poisonous tongue” (1969, Morogoro Consultative Conference). This was a direct reference to factional activities. Despite the many efforts made over time, the influence of factionalism is a much remarked upon phenomenon in the ANC, but it remains little understood and analysed.

The broad focus of this article is to examine the conceptually contested definition of factions and also to discuss how factionalism develops and emerges in modern political parties like the ANC. At a formative level the article examines the structural characteristics and types of factions that are common. The article further highlights some negative characteristics of factions and in the conclusion warns that factions have the potential to reverse revolutionary gains and retard progress on any programme of social transformation. The overall objective of the article is to create awareness and functional understanding of factions.

Definition and structural characteristics of factions

In everyday engagement in ANC party politics reference is made to factions. Explicit in these references is the fact that there is a diverse understanding within the ANC of what constitutes a faction. Leading up to conferences and Biannual Branch General Meetings there is intra-party reorganisation that takes place, as those who share the same leadership and policy perspectives put measures in place to ensure a degree of coordination and collaboration. Such intra-party groupings are normally called lobby-groups, cores, tendencies, cliques or factions. In most instances these terms are used interchangeably. This subsection seeks to explain that lobby groups, cores, tendencies and cliques are different genres of intra-party groupings than factions. However, it is critical to note that any form of intra-party grouping can be a precursor to a faction.

In general terms there are two basic views with regard to factions in the political science. In this article, for the sake of the discussion, these views are categorised as the proto-party and the sub-party perspective. From the proto-party perspective, factions are forms of party organisation, which are precursors to more developed modern parties. Factions are perceived here as being characteristic of early stages of the so-called modernisation process in which individuals and groups have broken with traditional patterns of political behaviour, but the degree of political participation and institutionalisation is very low.

The sub-party perspective is found in the vast majority of studies and portrays a faction as a subgroup within a political party. There are, however, nearly as many views of such subgroups within a political party. In the past there have been attempts made to approach the topic in a more systematic way. In particular, typologies of factions have been developed which focuses on various kinds of factional structures and functions. Studies have also arrived at quite divergent findings about the causes of factionalism and its consequences for political parties.

Beller and Belloni (1978:419) define factions as being “any relatively organised group that exists within the context of some other group and which competes with rivals for power advantages within the larger group of which it is part”. Friedrich (1972) accepts this definition and further asserts that factionalism is an ambivalent phenomenon. The combined argument is that factionalism is caused by a conflictual relationship between formal and informal structures of a political party, when an informal structure tries to colonise or undermine the formal structure.

Rose (1964) distinguishes lobby group from factional tendencies as “adhocstable sets of attitudes rather than organised stable groups of politicians”. For Rose, lobby groups are adhoc defined in terms of time and are weakly institutionalised. In contrast, factions persist through time and “are self-consciously organised as a body, with a measure of discipline and cohesion”. Lobby groups, which are genuine interactions among the like-minded towards conferences, survive for a very short period because recruitment of members is not strictly coordinated. Leadership of lobby groups, if it exists at all, functions largely on an adhocbasis because the common interest is mostly confined to one issue. In contrast, factions are stable, regimented groupings with an organisational structure and are strongly, even if not openly, institutionalised.

This article conceptualises a faction as a relatively organised group within a party with defined interests and it contests for power. This renders factions hidden hierarchies because they work clandestinely and operate parallel to the elected organisational structures. A faction exhibits the following characteristics:

  • durability or semi-permanent existence;
  • an organisational backbone;
  • a discernible network;
  • a common group-consciousness;
  • a pursuit of political goals; and
  • a discernible grouping within the party.

Types of factions

From the preliminary literature review on the categorisation of factions there is predominantly a two-dimension typology, which is influenced by the tradition of classification of sub-groups within a party by David Hume (1877). The basic distinction here is between “spoils factions” and “ideological factions”. Spoils factionsare generally understood to be self-seeking groups, primarily concerned with accumulation and distribution of selective and divisible goods, such as party posts, funds, government appointments, and contracts. In contrast, ideologicalfactions are concerned primarily with policy or agenda-setting. Giannetti and Laver (2005) assert that during the formative stages of political parties there tends to be ideological factions as the new parties are grappling with agenda-setting and consolidating their ideological outlook. The ANC is 102-year-old liberation movement and during the formative stages it experienced a fair share of ideological splits as it was moulding its ideological outlook, which are:

  • Firstly, in the early 1950s, Richard Selope Thema led a group of Africans out of the ANC who were opposed to the interracial alliance of the ANC with Indians, coloureds and whites. They referred to the leadership of the ANC as paid agents of the Indian Merchants. Thema was expelled from the ANC and subsequently joined the Moral Rearmament Movement (Lodge, 1983);
  • Secondly, the nature of the differences within the ANC that led to the establishment of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in the late 1950s after the adoption by the ANC of the Freedom Charter as the basic policy document; and
  • Thirdly, the Group of Eight in the early 1970s as an ideological faction that opposed some permutation of the 1969 Strategy and Tactics and the opening up of ANC membership to “non-Africans”.

After more than a century of existence the ideological outlook of the ANC is consolidated andwell defined, there is clarity of purpose that stretches beyond immediate ANC members and its constituency. This is accentuated by the centenary message to the ANC by Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the UN. Ban Ki-moon could clearly and in simple way articulate the character and thehistoric mission of the ANC and further remarked that, “the power of the ANC lies not just in numbers of people who vote for it, but the vision for which it stands. This has always been the movement’s strength’.The consolidation of the ideological outlook of the ANC over the years was through inclusive, democratic and transparent processes. These processes negate the emergence of ideological factions within the ANC. Any faction that purports to have anideological permutation is subversive and counter-revolutionary as it seeks to subvert the ANC internal democratic processes on policy formulation.

The study of factions elicits that the ascendancy to state power mainly leads tospoil factions or what is more commonly known as factions of patronage. These factions are very degenerative as their battle is about distribution of resources such as posts, tenders, contracts and other spoils of government. In this very same context, some loose tendencies towards some ANC Conferences could also be explained. Factions may acquire different faces in different parties at different times but remain a negative tendency.

The negative characteristics of factions

The ANC, like many other political parties, is not a monolithic structure but a collective entity drawing together diverse groupings of people that cut across racial, ethnic, class, gender, cultural and religious lines. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that variances of opinion and political position is to be found when important questions of party policy and the election of leaders arise. Inside of these variances it is commonplace to find sub-groupings that coalesce around competing views of policy or those that support alternative candidates for election into leadership positions. These variances can at times be characterised by intense divisions, which have the added weight of creating internal pressures. In some cases the activities of sub-groupings have a real potential to degenerate into factions.

When the organisational backbone and the network of a sub-group, such as a lobby group, go beyond a conference, the lobby group metamorphoses into a faction. Factions become reinforced in the aftermath of conferences if the common consciousness of members of a sub-group remains intact and distinct from the collective consciousness. Factions seek to colonise the organisation by subordinating the entire organisational machinery and its structures to a factional interest. This danger underscores the call by the ANC for an unrelenting struggle against factionalism. The mostobvious negative characteristics of factions are explained below:

Factions are counter-revolutionary:factions generate unwanted contradictions in an organisation that tend to reverse revolutionary gains, stall and retard progress. The Indian Congress Party (Congress Party) lost elections after 30 continuous years in power between independence in 1947 and its first taste of electoral defeat in 1977. During this period the electoral support of the Congress Party was averaging 73% across several general elections. The primary cause for the 1977 electoral defeat of the Congress Party was attributed to factions. Factions colonised the Congress Party, paralysed its structures and demobilised certain interest groups in the party. As a result it became increasingly difficult for the party structures to manage these factions, as factional lines were often unclear or overlapping and conditioned by shifting rivalries, alliances and expedient tactical considerations.

The Indian Congress case study reinforces Fidel Castro’s (1979) perspective that factions are a “debasement and a blemish to a revolutionary movement” and no self-respecting organisation or cadre can co-exist with factions. Castro goes further in accusing members of his party involved in factionalism of being counter-revolutionaries. Scoundrels of all kinds and actual counter-revolutionaries attach themselves to factions and simply by mimicking the behaviour of factions, get accepted and integrated into factions, while genuine revolutionaries are treated as enemies. The scoundrels aggravate factional activities because it is their only way of legitimising themselves.

Factions compromise organisational and ideological integrity of the party:  if lower organisational structures and members of the party suspect that a decision by the higher structure was generated through a faction they become reluctant to abide by it. The reluctance to abide by the decisions taken by higher structures threatens democratic centralism. Democratic centralism and collective leadership are both principles of democratic decision-making and are meant to reinforce unity and organisational integrity. Democratic centralism requires that all members and lower organisational structures must have confidence in the capacity of higher organisational structures to take grounded and politically sound decisions that are in the best interest of the organisation. When members and lower structures suspect that the best interest of the organisation is relegated to the backyard and factional interest finds pre-eminence they loose confidence in higherstructures and this manifest itself in subtle, sometimes open, revolts against the decisions of higherstructures. This can reach a degenerative state where the organisational integrity of the party hits the dust, as higher structures cannot issue authoritative values.

Equally, if leaders serving in an organisational structure suspect that there were factional manoeuvres before the meeting of the structure, they tend to be less keen to abide or implement the decision. Such ambivalent attitude by leaders towards the decisions of the structure threatens collective leadership. Collective leadership presupposes that a decision taken by a structure binds on all those who serve in that structure, simply put, collective ownership of the decision and its consequences. If individual members serving in a structure suspect that factional manoeuvres prompted a particular decision, they tend to be disillusioned with both the decision and the structure they serve in. This disillusionment manifests itself in verbatim media leakages of discussions that took place in structures, inertia with implementation of decisions and a groundswell of conflicting messages by leaders. The media leakages and conflicting messages are only meant to discredit the decisions taken. This destroys the coherent ideological outlook that the party is expected to present.

Factions are degenerative: they subordinate unity and stability in the organisation and always tend to opt for manipulated unity ratherthan organic unity. A state of instability or disunity provides a fertile ground forthe operations of factions. Factions deliberately render fragile the defence line in the organisation in order to create insecurity among members and leadership collectives. In rendering the party vulnerable, factions deliberately impoverish the organisation by isolating and marginalising key cadres of the party. Weakening of the defence line of the party is considered counter-revolutionary.

Factions are arrogant: they lack reason and are very impatient with counter arguments. People who serve in dominant factions have an inflated sense of ego and entitlement. They attempt exclusively to appropriate to themselves the right to think for the organisation. Any difference of opinion, no matter how convincing,becomesvulgarised and the proponents thereof ridiculed and even blackmailed. Arrogance renders factions blind to reality, and the overriding selfish interests of factions become a key-determining factor of any engagements in party structures. This stifles engagements and discourages critical thinking by members and leadership collectives as the matter under discussion ‘ibotshiwe’. The ANC is a collective intellectual organ as it defines the kind of society that it seeks to build. Lack of a culture of disciplined critical engagements by members and structures will dilute the revolutionary character of the movement and also seriously degrade the capacity of the ANC to engage in the battle of ideas.

Factions are corrupt:it is trite politics to state thatfactional interest is resource driven. Factions have a perpetual thirst and insatiable appetite for the public purse. Hence, factions must be serviced at all times. Investment in a faction is like investing in a bottom-less pit. The more you service the interests of a faction, the more demanding it becomes. The law of the dialectics of the passage of quantity into quality do not appear to apply to factions. Individual interests of members of a faction and its strategic agenda tend to mutate. Every faction has benevolent givers or providers and recipients. The benevolent givers are members of a faction in a more advantageous position in relation to resources. The recipients of patronage are not always satisfied with living on hand-outs; but are also keen to migrate closer to the resources. This desire to migrate closer to resources by therecipients of patronage poses a serious challenge and threatens the positions of the benevolent givers. This mobility in the interests of members of a faction generates instability within factions.

Factions replicate and mutate:they always produce other factions. A faction gives rise to anti-faction activities; these in turn degenerate into factions themselves. Members of a faction are inherently politically insecure and associate with factions to compensate for this insecurity. This insecurity also triggers mistrust. Competing self-interests and mistrust of members of a faction predisposes the faction to inherent contradictions that triggers formation of mutated-factions within factions. These mutated-factions in turn degenerate into fully-fledged factions. Therefore a faction reproduces other factions and it is commonplace in politics that the first target of the mutated-faction is the primary-faction. This process replicates and mutates further and goes some way towards explaining why a faction tends to loathes and reviles other factions. What remain at stake between factions is each one’s selfish and narrow interests and, therefore, this arena of interaction is always contentious and potentially destabilising of the party wherein it resides.

Factions are mean-spirited: the manner in which factions deal with the party members is brutal and merciless as though they are dealing with a deadly enemy. To factionalists comradeship does not possess any intrinsic revolutionary value to observe. Factions derive extreme pleasure from the pain and suffering of others. When others are in trouble, factionalists see opportunities to advance; the obvious response is intensification of the problems. More problems for those who are not part of a faction present more opportunities for servicing the vile interests of a faction. The revolutionary ethic of ‘brother-keeper or sister-keeper of each other’ holds little importance for factionalists. This unethical attitude is also directed at those who are part of the faction, because affiliation to a faction is purely incidental to the factional interest.

Factions are vindictive: factions have a propensity to bear grudges with regard to disagreements and differences of opinions. If a party member differs with a position consolidated by a faction, an avalanche of personal attacks will be unleashed. Factions favour a straightjacket approach. If the faction takes a decision, everybody is expected to conform, including structures and failure to conform can unleash negative consequences, particularly if a faction is in control of structures. Party members are expected to behave in a manner that keeps them in the “good books” of the faction leaders and this situation gives rise to politics of ingratiation. These politics of ingratiation discourages members from thinking and further undermines the centrality of membership and structures in the life of the organisation.

Factions are disrespectful: members serving in a faction feel emboldened, worse if they serve in a dominant faction. Such members derive a sense of magnanimity, which in most cases isfuelled by triumphalism. This generates an agitation that detestsboth organisational processes and the constitution, as these are perceived as impediments to the factional agenda being realised. Factions use organisational policies or the Constitution to disingenuously pursue an agenda that has nothing to do with what the organisation seeks to achieve. For factions there are no rules, it is a “Wild West” engagement. In most instances, factionalists consider members of the organisation who are not part of the faction as ‘impure members’ and targets. Factions strive to exclusively appropriate to themselves the right to take decisions on all strategic matters of the organisation. For them the party is a convenient tool, crudely subjugated to the interests of the faction.

Factions lack legitimacy: in order to legitimise itself a faction generates a significant incentive scheme driven by patronage to ensure members affiliated to the faction derive direct benefits. Hence, to extricate oneself from the complex web of factional politics isvery difficult. This is due to the fact that factional politics can easily become embedded in one’s life, not only political life, but each and every aspect of life of members affiliated to a faction. When factionalists speak, they speak faction, when they work, they work for the faction, when they eat, they eat through the faction and even when they sleep, they orientate in a factional gradient.

Factions are thus addictive,once entangled; disentanglement is well nigh impossible as negative consequences can be visited on the defector. This introduces the behavioural concept of path dependence. Path dependence expresses the idea that once members of the party venture far down a factional path in dealing with political issues; they are likely to find it difficult to reverse the cause as political alternatives that were once quite plausible may become irretrievably lost. The loss of plausible political alternatives triggers negative feedback mechanisms, which reinforces factionalism as a “historical cure”. This then serves as an ill-begotten justification for the existence of factions.


Factional politics is politics of conflict. In most instances factional politics reflect a leadership crisis and a weak organisation. Factional linkages are cultivated on basis personal ties and this leads to a breakdown of the adopted political processes and required conduct. The political storm generated by factions can blow away the entire party establishment, and at a minimum undermine the facade of its unity.

Factions not only turn policy outcomes into vehicles for their particular interest, but also result in policy inconsistency as each faction tries to shift the adopted policy to its own advantage. This destructive trait of factions becomes more dangerous for governing parties in the post-colonial societies when the governing parties seek to embark on extensive programmes of social transformation to eradicate colonial disfigurements. A strong state, a strong political leadership and a strong political party are indispensible for the success of these wide-ranging programmes of social transformation.

There is a general view that late industrialisation in India is due to a weak state, weak political leadership and a fragmented Congress Party that was caught up in a web of factional battles. The majority of people met the ascension of the ANC to government in 1994 with huge expectations of a better life. The ANC embarked on extensive programmes of social and economic transformation. The 53rd National Conference resolved to undertake the “second phase of the transition” which entails the eradication of the triple burden of underdevelopment: unemployment, poverty and inequality.

Mobilisation of all sectors of society behind the “second phase of the transition” and strengthening of the capacity of the state to lead and be at the cutting edge of such an extensive programme is crucial. For these objectives to be realised, the country needs strong leadership and a political party. When the party is infested by factions, leaders become lame-duck, the organisation become a convenient object for access to state resources and the state machinery becomes nothing more than a big patronage enterprise. Such a state of affairs generates a great deal of disenchantment that results in extreme changes in the electoral support of the party, the defection of leaders who have influence over a large block of voters and diverts attention from important programmes of social transformation as leaders are preoccupied with strategies to outmanoeuvre each other. The net result of the counter-revolutionary character of factions is paralysis of both the party and the state machinery. Such paralysis sets an ugly stage for dramatic reversal of revolutionary gains and eventually the demise of the political party.

Comrade Zamani Saul is the ANC Provincial Secretary of Northern Cape


Belloni, F.P. & Beller, D.C. (1978). Faction Politics:Political Parties and Factionalism in Comparative Perspectives. Santa Barbara,CA: ABC-Clio Inc.
Friedrich, C.J. (1972). The Pathology ofPolitics. New York. Harper and Row.
Marquez, G.G. (1981). Fidel Castro Speeches. New York: Pathfinder Press
Giannetti, D. & Laver, M. (2005). Party Cohesion, Party Factions and Legislative Party Discipline in Italy. ECPR 2005. Joint Session Conference Paper.
Hume, D. (1877). Essays: Moral, Political and Literary. Indianapolis, IN: LibertClassics
Hine, D. (1982). Factionalism in West European Parties: A Framework for Analysis. West European Politics Vol. 5, pp. 36 – 53.
Huntington, S.P. (1968).  Political Order in Changing Societies. New York: Harper and Row.
Lodge, T. (1983). Black Politics in South Africa since 1945. London:Ravan Press
Mandela, N.R. (1985). Letter to the Kabwe Consultative Conference. Johannesburg: ANC archives
Mantashe, S.G. (2012). Article in Sunday Times November 2012.
Tambo, O.R. (1969). Intensify the Revolution: Extracts From the Political Report of the National Executive Committee to the Consultative Conference of the ANC. Morogoro, Tanzania, April 25 – May 8. From Sechaba, July 1969
Rose, R. (1964). Parties, Factions and Tendencies in Britain in: Political Studies, Vol    12, pp. 33 – 46.
Sartori, G. (1976). Parties and Party Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zariski, R. (1960). Party Factions and Comparative Politics: Some Preliminary Observations. Midwest Journal of Political Science Vol 4 pp 26 – 51.
Zariski, R. (1978). Party Factions and Comparative Politics: Some Empirical Findings. Midwest Journal of Political Science Vol 1 pp 13 – 32.

Posted in Phambili
Join the ANC
Customized Social Media Icons from Acurax Digital Marketing Agency
Talk to Us Now
close slider

    I am not a robot + 27 = 32

    Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterVisit Us On YoutubeVisit Us On Instagram