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Parliamentary paralysis: Worse is not better

Professor Raymond Suttner

25th November 2014

By: Raymond Suttner

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Many observers derive some pleasure from the disorder recently witnessed in parliament and the embarrassment it has caused the ANC.  While lamenting this development, many may wish to see these scenes continue, no matter what the cost to parliament as an institution.  It is, however, necessary to look to the long-term and find a way of resolving the problems.

In politics it is important to understand when an approach that may have yielded great success has run its course.  In the course of pursuing campaigns the ANC had at one time, in the 1950s, to decide whether to continue various campaigns.  It had to ask whether or not to continue to boycott potatoes, for example.  Would the people have the capacity to continue or would it simply peter out?  Alternatively, having seen that they had some power, would they be emboldened to continue for much longer?  Likewise, one has always to ask towards what goal any campaign will lead, whether its various requirements can be sustained and whether any sacrifice will be worth it.

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When the ANC wanted to oppose Bantu Education, leaders like Chief Albert Luthuli cautioned that it was important not to boycott Bantu Education unless there was the capacity to offer an alternative education to young people.  The alternative schools that were established were very limited and could not provide for all who needed to go to school.  Consequently many drifted into the Bantu Education schools.  The lesson to be drawn is that every tactic and campaign has to be constantly re-evaluated and a particular course of action, though it may once have been successful, may not necessarily be desirable indefinitely.

The combined opposition, particularly the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters, surprised many earlier this month with tactics that exposed President Jacob Zuma’s failure to abide by the constitution and refusal to be accountable to parliament, with protection provided by the ANC.  Their filibustering tactics initially caught the ANC off guard and they were able to delay for some hours (and there was no reason why it could not have continued longer) the presentation of the report on Nkandla exonerating the president from owing any money for non-security related improvements to his private home.  This enabled them to register their protest in the house.

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At this moment all attempts to achieve a settlement that would enable parliament to continue with its ordinary business have broken down, with each side blaming the other. Should the house see further disorderly scenes there is no guarantee that the riot police will not re-enter parliament, despite the widespread criticism that their previous entries have evoked.

Should we see a re-run of attempts to make President Zuma answer questions or be accountable over Nkandla, we are likely to see a repeat of what we have already witnessed.  This will again demonstrate the ANC’s shielding of the President at the expense of accountability and other democratic principles.

The question we need to ask is whether this continued disorder and failure of the house to meet and continue its normal business is desirable.  Does it serve a constructive purpose to continue this particular political pattern indefinitely?  That is a question addressed to all parties.

Is it better for democracy to have things get worse?  In continually exposing the flaws of a president with his back to the wall are we not making it more difficult to find a settlement? 

It seems to me important that we break the pattern of a zero sum game, where the ANC must either meet its obligations or face a breakdown in proceedings.  This does not serve the needs of South Africa's constitutional democracy.  There needs to be work towards establishing a framework where the conditions for the operation of multi-party democracy are put back in place.  It is important to spell these out again and work towards their achievement.  In my view, it is desirable that we get parliament working again.  We cannot afford to forgo the value, expressed in the constitution, of having the National Assembly act as a “national forum for public consideration of issues”.

All parties must respect the constitutional status that they enjoy, as majority or minority parties, within that Assembly. The majority party, by virtue of having been elected by the largest portion of the electorate, occupies an important space in our constitutional democracy. This cannot be wished away. It may be that the way it acts and the policies it pursues are repugnant to the other parties but that is what attaches to the status of being a majority party.  However, it cannot do anything it likes because the majority party must show all other parties that it operates under the law and the constitution.

We need to move towards that mutual respect because without taking such steps we are endangering the future of parliamentary democracy.  Imperfect as it is, it is a hard-won democratic right and institution and we cannot simply allow it to be destroyed for whatever reason.  This balancing of majority power with democratic values and the constitution is the foundation of parliamentary governance and constitutional rule. 

It is consequently the responsibility of every party in parliament to take steps to restore and entrench these principles.  It may be that the impasse that is now being experienced will also benefit from the advice and leadership of people in other walks of life, outside of parliament.  Whether or not that is so cannot be predicted now.

It is true that getting parliament back to work without answers on Nkandla - or more precisely with the president’s failure to answer questions on it - is unsatisfactory. But the promise of endless breakdowns cannot be good for the country.  Stability needs to be restored in parliament. That requires mature leadership, looking not only to immediate gains but also to the long-term stability of our democratic institutions. 

Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, is an analyst on current political questions and leadership issues. He writes a regular column and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Polity.org.za. Suttner is a former political prisoner and was in the leadership of the ANC-led alliance in the 1990s. His book 'Recovering Democracy' will be published by Jacana Media early in 2015. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.

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