Parliament saves us from the ‘law of the jungle’

2015-02-23 15:00

The recent events that sought to redefine our Parliament stood in stark contrast to the very intention of it as a democratic institution.

Though popular belief has it that the ancient Greeks were the originators of democracy – defined as people’s power – it could also be argued this system of governance developed as self-evident logic against the conflicts of the jungle from which humanity also owes its origins.

Notwithstanding claims about the evolution of democracy from other parts of the world, the Greeks adopted democracy after physical or violent conflicts were deemed ineffective and a barbaric tool to confront differences.

Similarly, South Africans had fought each other over 350 years of colonialism and 40 years of apartheid.

Violent suppressions were met with the launch of the armed struggle because, to paraphrase Nelson Mandela, the co-founder of Umkhonto weSizwe, “there comes a time when the people have to submit or fight”.

Thus when negotiations were mooted as a way to resolve the historic carnage that saw the Sharpeville massacre and the 1976 killings of student protesters, it brought the hope that democracy would prevail as the platform to deal with all political, social and economic challenges.

The historic inauguration of the first democratically elected Parliament and the election of the first democratically elected president in 1994 were living proof of the commitments made at the negotiation tables for the new South African dispensation.

But the first democratic elections did not instantly transform the socioeconomic conditions imposed by decades and centuries of colonialism and apartheid misrule.

The new institutions of Parliament, the executive and a transformed judiciary brought the hope that despite sharp political differences among the three arms of the state, such differences would be moderated democratically and peacefully.

Cardinal to the advent of democracy were the actual systems and rules that give expression to the system. Each country adopts systems, rules and procedures that define a democracy.

In our instance, Parliament is constitutionally moderated by rules and procedures at whose head is the Speaker of Parliament and the chair of the National Council of Provinces, as well as their respective deputies as presiding officers.

The question now is what to make of the behaviour that contradicted the rules and high expectations of Parliament as the ultimate representative of the people. This includes the jamming of the signal.

Because it is in the same Parliament that the people expect to resolve their various social, political and economic challenges.

It can be said without any doubt or fear of contradiction that MPs failed the course of the institution during the state of the nation address.

Many downplay the importance of “decorum” as creating the essential environment in which debates and differences must be conducted and expressed in Parliament.

Decorum is an important reminder of Voltaire’s mantra: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It is a reminder that while differences carry their own importance, so do their appropriate expression – as opposed to the expressions of conflict during the years of colonialism and apartheid – as the Greeks could attest to in the era preceding their adoption of democracy.

The questions that some members of the opposition sought to ask the president were important to ensure the accountability of the executive.

So, in the week following the state of the nation address, the procedure is always that the president must answer questions from MPs who speak on behalf of the people who elected them.

This is the order of things, how things should have unfolded as they ultimately unfolded.

What is more pleasing is that President Zuma will be coming back to Parliament to answer questions from MPs on March 11.

Very important was the fact that despite the alarming detour from rules and procedures, sanity ultimately reigned and we remembered that by adopting the Constitution and the various laws, rules and procedures, we have made the statement that we can never allow South Africa, to paraphrase Madiba, to be the skunk of the world again.

It is important that democracy, and Parliament in particular, be indispensable instruments so that we never replicate the ugly past.

This can happen when we remember the supremacy of the Constitution regarding the powers of presiding officers to ensure order in the House.

The Greeks chose democracy and abandoned the barbarism of conflicts symptomatic of the rules of the proverbial jungle.

President Zuma’s passionate plea to all members of Parliament and political parties represented in it – that it is their responsibility to ensure that Parliament works and defends the Constitution – was instructive.

Kodwa is ANC national spokesperson

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