Democracy Watch

Can SA parliament fend off creeping autocracy?

Parliament under siege?

Evidence is mounting that South Africa has entered a critical political phase that will determine whether its democracy will deepen, or slip into the status of an autocratic and failed state.

The first month of the 2017 parliamentary session has been dominated thus far by an escalating a battle for dominance between the Zuma-led executive and parliament as its overseer and as legislator – in many instances across party political dividing lines.

The clearest sign of this escalating battle was Minister of Communication, Faith Muthambi’s, announcement last week of a court challenge of a largely unanimous report by a parliamentary ad hoc committee on the public broadcaster (SABC).

By taking the report on judicial review, Muthambi is doing her utmost to avoid parliamentary accountability, even though her own ANC governing party also supported the report.

Indicative of the stained atmosphere also developing between some members of the executive – mostly described as close allies of President Zuma – and ANC members of parliament, Muthambi, in what was described as an “explosive letter” to Speaker Baleka Mbete, referred to the ad hoc committee as being "irrational and unlawful."

The chairperson of the committee, ANC MP Vincent Smith, was not even shown the courtesy of being informed about the letter.  

In another sign of the tensions developing between ANC members of the legislative and the leader of the party, President Zuma effectively repudiated his own parliamentary caucus in public for voting against an Economic Freedom Fighters’ motion for changes to the constitution to enable expropriation of land without compensation.

On another front, the Minister of Social Services, Bathabile Dlamini, has also done her utmost to avoid accountability to parliament’s standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) on the social grant scheme crisis, which has become a serious threat to social stability in the country.

When she finally did appear before the committee, she was not spared probing questions, including form members of her own party.

She even claimed that she is not accountable to Scopa and while demands for her to be relieved from her cabinet position, president Zuma has consistently expressed his confidence in her.

And, more revealing about his attitude towards the accountability of his executive he, from Jakarta, Indonesia where he was attending an international summit said: "I’d like to appeal to the Ministers themselves, that they should not talk in public and answer questions,” on the Sassa matter.

Blurring lines between executive and administration

In recent times South Africa also experienced an increasing blurring of the dividing line between the executive- and administrative arms of government – mostly due to ruling party’s policy of cadre deployment.

It has also seen the structures of state security becoming an extension of the wielding of executive- power, -manipulation thereof and -propping it up.

As Daniel Silke, director of Political Futures Consultancy in a recent article regarding the role of security forces, remarked: “The unprecedented series of events that occurred before, during and even after Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address have rightfully left South Africans – and perhaps many overseas – just that bit more uneasy about the country’s nascent democracy.”

Wider grab at absolute power

How wide the power grab and trend towards autocratic behaviour from at least some in the executive stretches, is evident from the stance of Sassa towards the Constitutional Court. 

At one stage in the developing social grants crisis – although it later had to backtrack – Sassa filed an affidavit to the Constitutional Court stating that it believed the court’s approval was “not necessary” for the contract with CPS (at the heart of the crisis) to go ahead. This despite an earlier judgement by the court invalidating the CPS contract.

It also took an intervention by the Gauteng High Court to prevent the executive under  Zuma-leadership to withdrawal South Africa from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in a way that showed total contempt for the mandate of parliament as the legislative power of the land on the matter.

Broader perspective

In February of last year, after the unruly opening of parliament, Sean Gossel of the University of Cape Town’s Business School in an article (“South Africa: finely balanced between autocracy and democracy”) for The Conversation, wrote: “South Africa has spent the last 20 years in transition, oscillating between a deepening and a reversal of democratic liberties.

“Global patterns suggest that the country has a higher chance of falling back into an autocracy than becoming an established democracy. But there is still hope.”

He points out that “since 2000 the failure rate of democracies has increased to nearly 20%. In addition, since 2005 nearly half of the 27 emerging countries in the world with large populations or large economies have experienced a reversal of democratic freedoms. This includes South Africa.”

One does not have to dig too hard and deep in South Africa’s recent political environment to find the reasons, put forward by Gossel, for this democratic decline – “bad governance associated with weakening transparency, civil liberties, corruption and rule of law.”

Congress of the People (COPE) spokesperson, Dennis Bloem, probably came close to the truth when he in May of last year wrote: “South Africa (is) morphing into a democratic autocracy.”

“From 2009 we have seen the emergence of a system of government in which near supreme power is concentrated in the hands of Mr Zuma,” he wrote and argued that “the ruling party caucus has strategically forfeited its duty of holding him (Zuma) accountable. The only remaining restraints on him are those imposed by the courts from time to time.”

All not lost yet

However, not all is lost yet. There are signs of some fight back from at least some elements inside the ANC caucus, and within the broader ANC party structures, for that matter.

Last week, for instance, Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown, during an appearance before parliament’s oversight committee on Public Enterprises, declared she “believes that there should be an inquiry into the State of Capture report compiled by former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.”

She was briefing the committee on the performance and challenges of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs).

Likewise, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has accepted an invitation to attend a Scopa meeting this week to discuss the looming social grants crisis.

How this battle plays out in the months to come, and especially how it will impact on the policy conference, leadership battle and end of the year elective conference of the ANC, is going to be crucial for the survival of true democracy in South Africa.

Also read: State capture about to become complete?

by Piet Coetzer

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