Parliament Watch

Crunch time for SA parliament to arrive early in 2015

What awaits Zuma in parliament?
Zuma in parliament.jpg

Unless something fairly dramatic happens before then, the South African parliament and the country’s constitution could be facing their sternest test yet on 12 February 2015.

The bells for interval in the theatre of the absurd that parliament has become in recent weeks rings this week when the National Assembly (NA) completes its last plenary session of 2014.

Friday 12 February is scheduled for President Jacob Zuma’s next State of the Nation address (SONA) at a joint sitting of the NA and National Council of Provinces (NCOP). It will be his first appearance on the parliamentary stage since chaos erupted on 21 August this year.

Unless there is some deep reflection about, and action, to redirect the script that has been playing out in and around the drama that can be called “Adapting to post-liberation South Africa”, the nature and structure of South African politics are undergoing a seismic change, and can just get worse.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EEF) have already given notice of as much. Their leader, Julius Malema, promised to cause “disorder” at the SONA if Zuma has by then not given an answer about when he will pay back the money for non-security upgrades to his Nkandla residence.

Opposition’s role

The responsibility to turn things around to a more positive trajectory does not only rest with lead players like the speaker, Baleka Mbete, and the leader of government business in parliament, Cyril Ramaphosa. It also lies with the leaders of political parties, especially with the official opposition (Democratic Alliance), at all levels.

Although the governing ANC and its battle to come to terms with the transition from liberation politics to a more mature democratic dispensation lies at the root of the present parliamentary turmoil, the opposition also has much to reflect on.

After the May 2014 elections the leader of the DA, Helen Zille, declared that she was not prepared to co-operate with the EFF. That resolution lasted less than three months.

By August there was a widespread perception that the EFF was setting the tone and style of opposition to the way the ANC is dealing Nkandla affair and that they were mimicked by the DA.

If the DA does not realise to how widespread the unease is among its own powerbase about this development, it does not have its ear close enough to the ground.

More importantly, in the process it has made some strategic and tactical errors by not fully utilising the rules of parliament it so profusely claims to defend.

For one, by withdrawing from the NA’s committee on Nkandla, it has robbed itself of the opportunity to insist on the calling of officials who are being blamed for the whole debacle to appear before the committee.

It crucially also robbed itself of the opportunity to officially produce a minority report that would become part of both of the debate to follow in parliament and of the official record.

And while South Africa in line with the fundamentals underlying its constitution, seems to be heading for coalition governments, the ‘interval’ should be a time to reflect on what can and should be done to prepare for that.

One question that should or can be considered: Is there any reason why the 2015 session of parliament should or cannot start off with an opposition coalition in place?

But the framework of such a coalition should be carefully considered and constructed. Last week, at the Gauteng conference of her party, Ms Zille said it would consider entering into coalitions in municipalities “for the 2016 local government elections”.

She and her party should rethink the lessons of the abortive pre-election coalition attempt with Agang SA ahead of the May 2014 general election. Coalitions are the stuff of post-election politics in elected institutions. Going into elections with a coalition on a shared platform is to rather narrow the democratic space than to broaden it, with all the tensions and grandstanding that come with it.

Understanding the process

While the person of Mr Zuma and the controversies surrounding him have taken centre stage in the unfolding drama, it neither started with his rise to the top of the political heap, nor will his removal from office change it. His at this point most likely successor, Mr Ramaphosa, does not come out unscathed from the recent developments in parliament.

That Mr Zuma is but a bit player in a wider and deeper process, dating back to the days of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, is higlighted in an excellent recently released briefing paper by Mike Pothier for the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference parliamentary liaison office.

Pothier points out how Nkandla was the culmination of a problem that has been building up for some time, dating back to the days of Mr Mbeki as leader of the ANC and president of the country.

“The disturbing goings-on in Parliament during the last few weeks are but the latest example of what appears to be the willingness on the part of the ANC to sacrifice hard-won standards of good governance and to threaten important democratic traditions,” he writes.
The real question is, why? It is not just an attempt to protect Mr Zuma. The real reasons reach considerably deeper, he argues. It can be found in the misconception by the ANC to equate democracy to majoritarianism as well as to the common phenomenon of liberation movements developing a culture of entitlement, our still political immaturity, the staleness that sets in when a single party governs for too long and the development of patronage and vested interests in the system.

It is pointed out how the process started, among other things, with the suspension of Vusi Pikoli by Mr Mbeki for deciding to prosecute the then police commissioner Jackie Selebi.

In the way Mr Zuma is defended at present, former president Thabo Mbeki was as stoutly defended by ANC spokespeople, cabinet ministers and loyal MPs when his AIDS denialism was at its height. In the end it is really about the party and defending its position.

If and when Mr Zuma is perceived by the party to have become too much of a liability (and Nkandla may yet prove to be it), and to have become a danger to its voter support and/or is alienating important constituencies (as has just happened with the party’s Veterans League), he will be dropped just as quickly and finally as happened to Mr Mbeki.

If and when Mr Zuma disappears from the scene, the process of transition will not end and can be expected to last for some years to come.

Bottom line

The bottom line is: As a society South Africa is still learning the culture of true democracy. Along the way there will be mistakes, uncertainty and at times confusion.

After two decades in government the ANC as liberation movement is reaching its sell-by date as an all-dominating majority party. It is running out of ideas on many fronts of day-to-day government – from key themes of education, unemployment, corruption, crime, landlessness, poverty and more.

At the end of the road a totally new dispensation of coalition vibrancy probably awaits, but it is sure to be a bumpy ride.

It is not the first time that South Africa is experiencing a process of transition and next week we will take a closer look at the dynamics of such processes.

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by Piet Coetzer

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