SA Today: Break or Build? Which lessons will we learn from the SONA?

zilleThe events that unfolded last week, before, during and after the State of the Nation Address on Thursday evening, will go down in history as a catalytic moment that either helped to break — or build — our democracy.

The difference between these two outcomes depends on the lessons South Africans learn from these events, and how the people who really matter in a democracy — the voters — respond to them.

The dominant narrative at present — which poses a grave threat to democracy — is that we are witnessing a battle for supremacy and control over Parliamentary proceedings between the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Based on this assumption, the ANC went into the State of the Nation Address with a carefully choreographed “battle plan”, executed by the Public Order Police, the SABC, and the Speaker who “commanded” the ANC’s forces from a prepared script on the table before her. The ANC were going into battle (together with key institutions of state), to rout the enemy. They either did not understand, or care, about the grave constitutional implications of what they were doing.

Afterwards Cabinet members were heard congratulating each other on the success of the operation which, they said, “put the EFF in its place” and “showed the EFF who is boss”.

No doubt many South Africans share this perception. But if this analysis remains unchallenged, the events of last Thursday will mark a milestone in the unravelling of our democracy.

If we manage to explain why Thursday’s events, and the ANC’s interpretation of them, are profoundly wrong, and why the actions of most of the major players in this drama undermined the foundations of our constitution, we will turn a potential crisis into an opportunity to entrench concepts that are essential to sustaining democracy. It is essential that the DA does so.

South Africa’s biggest political problem, as many analysts now realise, is that we have a President and a Speaker who do not understand constitutionalism or the role of the institutions of democracy. This is the only conclusion one can reach when Mr Zuma, in all seriousness, asks why he should go to Parliament to answer questions from MPs. And when the Speaker regards it as her responsibility to protect the President when he refuses to answer questions from representatives of the people, even at appropriate question times designated for this purpose.

Given that the Speaker has interpreted her role as protecting the executive (rather than upholding Parliament’s right to call the executive to account), she has undermined her authority and ability to prevent MPs from using inappropriate occasions (such as the State of the Nation Address) to force their unanswered questions onto the agenda. And when she calls MPs insulting names such as “cockroach” she is destroying her own credentials to continue chairing the House.

Speaker Baleka Mbete is unable to distinguish her role as chairperson of her party (the ANC) from her role in the State (as defender of the institution of Parliament). The President believes that, because he won an election, he has more rights than other members, and is above the law. The EFF’s response to this has been to try to destroy Parliament, not defend it from the ANC’s assault. “I’m not here for rules of Parliament”, Malema told journalists recently. “I’m here for a revolution. We are not going to sit back and allow a situation where a revolution is undermined in the name of rules.” This approach is every bit as dangerous to the future of our democracy as the ANC’s.

Indeed the EFF has demonstrated, repeatedly, that they have no respect for any rules or constitutional rights. Just hours before the SONA began, Malema’s henchmen assaulted one of their own members, and chased him down a street in Cape Town, to prevent him from criticising Julius Malema in front of the media.

The President, Speaker and EFF have, through their conduct since the 2014 election, all contributed to breaking down the apex institution of our democracy, our Parliament — culminating in the confluence of contempt for the constitution we witnessed last Thursday.

The DA has been unequivocal in its defence of Parliament. Indeed, we have warned that democracy will collapse unless everyone upholds the constitution, the rule of law and due process, not only in Parliament but in all the other state institutions that Jacob Zuma and his allies have sought to erode — ranging from the National Prosecuting Authority to the South African Revenue Services and the HAWKS. They have done so with a single, overriding goal: to protect the President (and themselves) from accountability, so that corruption can continue unabated.

The DA seeks to defend South Africa’s democracy by using our institutions for the purpose they were intended: defending the people against power abuse, and ensuring the state serves their interests. We must prevent their destruction.

Many South Africans get impatient with the DA’s focus. They regularly ask me: Why does the DA make such a fuss about the constitution and the independence of institutions when there are millions of people without houses, jobs, decent services and even food?

The answer is simple: When leaders place themselves above the law, and abuse the institutions of state to protect themselves from public accountability, it means a country is moving headlong towards becoming a criminal state; And a criminal state destroys a country’s prospects of economic growth, job creation, decent education, health care, or other basic services. The only thing that flourishes in these circumstances is crime. Once leaders place themselves above the law, more and more people follow suit until the law has no meaning, except as an instrument for the powerful to persecute their political opponents.

In a nutshell, Constitutionalism is essential to beating poverty, not a diversion from this goal.

Which is the main reason that the events of Thursday February 12th (Zuma’s eighth “State of the Nation” address) were so serious, involving the accumulation of numerous constitutional violations that began early in the afternoon, as military vehicles and water cannons “occupied” central Cape Town, and continued into the night.

The DA is planning appropriate action in respect of each one of these violations, so that the grave implications of this military-style operation to bludgeon democracy into submission, are not overlooked; and to avoid their repetition. The DA’s action plans will unfold in the weeks ahead, in the national and provincial Parliaments, in the courts and other institutions, so that the crucial lessons are not lost in the drama and chaos that we witnessed at SONA 2015.

We will, of course, provide legal defence for our members charged under the Gatherings Act for lining up peacefully and legally (with hundreds of others), along the route of the Presidential cavalcade. (The only difference was that the DA was exercising its democratic right to hold protest placards, rather than cheerfully waving official flags.) We will also prosecute the police for unlawfully assaulting and arresting them.

We will use every mechanism in Parliament to hold the Speaker to account for the scrambling of the communications signal, and to establish who was responsible for this gross violation of the Bill of Rights; and we will seek to ensure that the Speaker’s ability to call in Security Services to deal with disruptions in the House, only ever happens again if it is necessary to protect the right of Parliamentarians to represent their voters, not to prevent them from doing so.

We will use our oversight mechanisms at provincial level to ask questions to the Western Cape Public Order Police regarding their “deployment” in Parliament. And we will continue to demand accountability from the SABC, whose shift from a public broadcaster to a “state broadcaster” was nowhere more evident than at SONA, when they refused to transmit footage of the disruption, but focused almost exclusively on the face of the Speaker. The SABC’s tattered credibility took yet another blow in this disgraceful episode.

Of all the actions we plan to take, challenging the Speaker’s decision to call in the “Security Services” to deal with “disruptive” MPs in the House is the most difficult to explain. The most easily misunderstood.

“What else was the Speaker to do?” people have asked me. “The EFF had made it clear they were not going to accept her ruling and were intent on creating mayhem. They want to destroy Parliament, not protect it.”

This is, of course, true. It does not help for me to reply that the Speaker should, long ago, have required Jacob Zuma to arrive at Parliament during designated question times, and answer MPs’ questions. That is water under the bridge, critics say. What should the Speaker have done, then and there on the spot, to deal with the EFF’s orchestrated disruption as the President was starting his speech?

Let me begin by explaining why calling in the security forces (police or military) cannot be a valid option. In a democracy (government by the people, for the people) — the “people” are represented in the country’s highest forum, Parliament, by the members they elected. The executive (President and Cabinet) is held accountable by the people’s elected representatives in Parliament. The role of the Speaker is to impartially defend the right of MPs to hold the executive to account.

It is untenable for security forces (who take their instructions from the executive) to be brought in by the Speaker to muzzle MPs. If this precedent is set, it will not take long for the Executive to consider itself unaccountable and require the Speaker to call in the police whenever MPs are “troublesome”. If there is a need for discipline against members who refuse to abide by Parliament’s rules, Parliament has its own security (that takes orders from the Speaker, not from the executive) to restore order in the Chamber if necessary. Once a Speaker has set a precedent of summoning state security forces (the police or the army) to impose the executive’s will on the legislature, accountability — the essence of democracy — is no longer possible.

That is why the DA’s Parliamentary leader, Mmusi Maimane, and Chief Whip, John Steenhuisen, asked repeatedly whether the “white shirts” were Parliamentary Security or Police. It is not a semantic difference. When the Speaker refused to answer the question clearly, we left the Chamber rather than countenance this collapse of the “separation of powers” doctrine, so essential to democracy. Not long afterwards the “white shirts” were confirmed as Public Order Policemen.

If the Speaker had stuck to the only option she had in the circumstances — asking the Parliamentary Security to evict Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu — and they had failed to do so, she would have had no option but to adjourn the House. And then, of course, Malema would have been perceived to have “won” the stand-off. The ANC regarded it as preferable to trample the Constitution rather than allow this outcome. We must understand how dangerous this approach is.

And we must understand how dangerous Malema’s approach is. It is his intention to smash the institutions of our democracy, not to use them to enforce accountability. Of course that is a crisis for South Africa, especially if people increasingly regard the battle for our future as a choice between the ANC and the EFF, neither of whom give a fig for the essence of a democratic system.

It has taken established democracies centuries to embed the essential elements of constitutionalism, into the nation’s DNA. South Africa is seeking to do this in a few short decades. That is why it is so essential that we learn the right lessons, and disseminate them as widely as possible, after such “catalytic” events.

As I have often said, the DA is running a race to defend South Africa’s democracy. We are the only party who understands why it is so important to do so. It is a race we cannot afford to lose.

Helen Zille

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