Having spent a week in Germany, to participate (among other things) in a seminar on the implications for democracy of the fall of the Berlin wall 25 years ago, it has been exhilarating to return to the turbulence of South African politics.
It is always salutary to analyse our democracy in a broader context. And inevitably, after being abroad, I tend to be more optimistic about the prospects for South Africa’s future than I was before I went.
I say this not despite the pandemonium in Parliament last week, but (partly) because of it.
In my view, it is a misreading of these events to describe Parliament as an “institution in deep and fundamental crisis”.
In fact, it is the ANC that is in crisis. Their crisis is not only deep and fundamental. It is terminal (although the unravelling of this once-great party will take a long time, interspersed with catalytic moments, some big – like the NUMSA expulsion – and some small).
The symptoms of the ANC’s internal crisis have surfaced in every institution in our country, public and private. But the fact that so many are “fighting back” to defend the integrity and independence of these institutions is a source of great optimism.
As the ANC disintegrates its leaders will seek diversions and scapegoats, but this will be in vain. The ANC reached its peak in the 2004 general election, under President Thabo Mbeki, and history will recall that it was downhill from there.
The DA’s job, during the next five years, is to prevent the ANC from turning its crisis into a crisis for South Africa’s democracy. This is an enormous challenge as the events in Parliament last week showed.
(For the sake of this newsletter’s international readers — or any South African who has been hibernating — the “events in Parliament” refer to the riot police’s invasion of the Assembly at about 22h00 last Thursday night, during a debate on a hydro-electric treaty with the Democratic Republic of Congo. The police’s mission was to forcefully remove a middle aged Parliamentarian, dressed in a domestic worker’s uniform, after she refused to withdraw the description of President Zuma as the “biggest liar and thief”. The resulting melee left various opposition MPs injured and the live Parliamentary TV feed censored).
Although the ANC’s crisis does hold serious risks for South Africa, it actually offers far bigger opportunities to consolidate our democracy within a single generation, if we manage the situation well.
No country can sustain a democracy without strong, independent institutions (public and private) that function under just laws, and that hold power to account. Achieving this has been the work of centuries in most established democracies. I believe South Africa has the opportunity to short-cut history and achieve this in a few decades.
It would be wrong to assume that success is assured. And we must ensure that our optimism does not blind us to the dangers. In my view, the greatest risk to our democracy is the ANC’s determination to cling to power, which it then abuses in pursuit of patronage and wealth. Politics for the ANC has become a bitter internal battle for control of the levers of power, which includes an attempt to hijack all institutions of the state to serve the interests of the dominant ANC faction.
This phenomenon, common to many emerging democracies, is called “state capture”. It happened in Zimbabwe, for example. And we are now witnessing President Zuma deploying his personal and political cronies to control all our institutions, from the SABC, to the National Prosecuting Authority, to the South African Police Service, and now, Parliament itself. He must control them all in order to stay out of jail.
The former Parliamentary Speaker, Max Sisulu, was unceremoniously axed after this year’s May election, because he insisted on following the rules of Parliament, not instructions from Luthuli House. The last straw came when he acceded to the DA’s request for an ad-hoc Parliamentary committee to deliberate on the Public Protector’s report on Nkandla which, amongst other things, required the President to repay the amount of public money spent on the renovations of the President’s private homestead.
Sisulu was, reportedly, summoned to Luthuli House where the ANC tried to call him to account. He replied by handing over a copy of the Constitution. It was not long before he was replaced by Baleka Mbete, the ANC Chairperson, who is quite open about her commitment to putting Zuma’s interests above political accountability. This is a classic example of “state capture”.
But this strategy has not succeeded, for one key reason: too many voters understand democracy and are increasingly voting for opposition parties that will not allow the ANC to abuse its power. The DA will continue to defend each state institution so that it can fulfil its purpose as defined in the Constitution, to promote the rights, freedoms and opportunities of all South Africans.
And this is what we did in Parliament last week. The filibuster (in which we dragged out proceedings through motion-after-motion in order to prevent, for as long as possible, the ANC’s Nkandla report white-wash) was just a tactic in a much bigger battle plan.
The Speaker tried to pre-empt our filibuster by arbitrarily changing the Parliamentary programme, despite the fact that it had been pre-arranged and agreed in the Chief Whips’ Forum. As a result, she faced an opposition revolt in the House.
Eventually, even the ANC’s own Chief Whip, Stone Sizani, could no longer defend the Speaker’s irrational partisanship and supported the opposition’s demand to continue the programme as agreed. It is rare in Parliamentary democracies that a Speaker is biased enough to be publicly humiliated by her own Party. But this is what happened in the South African Parliament this week, and it was good news for our democracy.
As dramatic as this was, it was only a small skirmish in a much bigger and longer battle, which will not come to an end when this Parliamentary term draws to a close this week.
Which brings me back to Berlin, and the protests that started in the East German town of Leipzig in August 1989, when a few hundred people gathered on the Karl Marx Square every Monday to remind their leaders that “Wir sind das Volk” (We are the people). Eventually their number grew to 70,000, and the democratic Tsunami became unstoppable.
Eventually the East German government acceded to a reform that would enable East Berliners to travel to West Berlin if they obtained appropriate documentation. Hearing the news over their radios for the first time on 9 November 1989, tens of thousands of East Berliners flooded to the border and brought the wall down.
No one had predicted or foreseen this. Yet it didn’t just suddenly happen. It was the culmination of small, incremental steps that, together, created a “perfect storm” for fundamental change.
This is what the DA is working to achieve in South Africa, but in a fundamentally different way. We are not trying to break anything down. On the contrary, we are trying to protect and build the institutions of our democracy.
In order to defend Parliament, we are making it clear that the National Assembly, the highest forum of South Africa’s elected representatives, is not the ANC’s playground. Jacob Zuma does not have the option to refuse to answer questions in Parliament. He has a constitutional duty to do so.
He was recently quoted as saying (to journalists, no less) that he did not have to come to Parliament because he is the President, not an MP. If he was quoted correctly, this is a mind-boggling statement. It shows his complete ignorance of and/or contempt for our Constitution and the core principle of accountability that underlies it.
Then, in this weekend’s media, he was quoted as demanding that ANC MPs “use their numbers” to “crush opposition” if the “ANC’s authority” is challenged in Parliament. What clearer illustration could there be that he is unfit to lead a democracy?
Meanwhile, inside Parliament, officials are already hard at work making preparations for Zuma’s “State of the Nation” address next year.
If the President thinks that the DA is going to allow Parliament to degenerate into a crass fashion-parade and ANC propaganda platform on prime time television, he is making a big mistake.
Unless we see fundamental reforms in Parliament, involving the programming authority, the Chief Whip’s Forum, the replacement of the Speaker, and the regular appearance of the President to answer questions, it will not be business as usual.
The South African equivalent of the Leipzig protests has begun.
And they will gain momentum, in a different context, in a different way. The process is unstoppable. And whatever the ANC does, it cannot change the fact that South Africans go to the polls again in 18 months’ time, to elect town and city governments across our country.
Perhaps it should heed the calls of a growing number of South Africans who are saying: “We are the People.”