Friday, 20 February 2015 00:00

The Future Of SA’s Democracy

“Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. And time future contained in time past”. This timeless verse by T.S. Eliot offers a lens through which to grapple with our degenerative political culture. There are portentous signs that can be gleaned from the recent political fallout in parliament, which has been both a reminder of the ugly aspect of our past, and a dire forewarning about an uncertain future.


If there is any one positive element about the state of parliament, it is that it attracts a great deal of interest from the public. The robustness of debates in parliament could help reduce the space between political authority and ordinary citizens. In a country that is enchanted with hero-worshipping, at least citizens can now see that a president is not a demi-god to be revered, but a public servant who must give an account. Those who find this level of scrutiny on the president embarrassing are really wishing that this political institution were an ecclesiastical convocation, where authority is hardly questioned.


What is menacing about the recent developments in parliament, however, is the fact that increasingly the governing party brooks no challenge to its authority. Reminiscent of apartheid security state, it does not hesitate to unleash violence when confronted by a formidable opponent. Many senior figures in the ANC even celebrated the deployment of security agents in parliament.


Thandi Modise the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces confirmed during a radio interview that the only threat posed by the EFF that warranted the calling of the security agents was to the administrative procedures of parliament. If this were the case, what would stop the ANC in future from unleashing state violence when its hold on power is threatened?


The danger of using security agencies for partisan purposes is that these can be turned against society in future. Given our history of political violence, including in the late 1980s in areas such as Crossroads and Nyanga, and in parts of Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal in the early 1990s between the supporters of the ANC and the IFP, with the involvement of apartheid security agents, we cannot risk politicising the security agencies.


We should not communicate the idea to the police that they can be used at the behest of political elites for reasons to do with short-term political interests. Similarly, intelligence agencies exist to safeguard the security of the country – and of course President Jacob Zuma is their Number 1 client – and not to pursue party political interests. Such a factional role can create a cleft in the country’s own security, and render it vulnerable.


However strongly ANC members feel about protecting Zuma – for whatever reasons – they should consider the country and the integrity of the vital institutions of the state first. Politicians come and go, but we have a much bigger challenge to build a country whose institutions should withstand adversity and endure through generations.


Where do we move from here? I might be naïve, but I think there are still conscience-driven leaders within the ANC. They need to stand up and challenge the direction in which the Zuma administration is taking the country. They will have to part with the growing sycophancy within the party and make a stand for what is right. The culture of fear seems overpowering. Even Thabo Mbeki felt the need to offer a comprehensive denial of his criticism of Zuma’s handling of the parliamentary fracas, as captured by the British journalist David Smith. If respected voices within the party are afraid to speak out, they are complicit in the destruction of institutions.


Second, it is not sufficient for the opposition to merely expose the wrongs of the ANC, but they need to frame a better argument about how they will govern the country, run the economy, and overcome the deep-seated social tensions. So far they seem content with the opposition role.


Finally, it should now be clear that waiting passively for those in parliament to fix our politics is wishful thinking. The answer to defective political leadership lie in determined activism outside of formal politics.


While there is much to celebrate in the vibrancy of our parliament, there is also much to worry about in the declining quality of our discourse, and the destruction of our vital institutions. Taken together, these are signs of a country that is losing its self-assurance and and whose leadership is insecure.


This article was first published in the Business Day, 20 February 2015