Checks and balances

2009-01-31 00:00

By declining to sign two bills into law, President Kgalema Motlanthe has provided an admirable illustration of how a well-founded democracy ought to function. The central issue here is the principle of the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers. Parliament has passed two pieces of controversial legislation, and the president, exercising his executive discretion, has referred them back for reconsideration.

Motlanthe’s action is all the more admirable because of his own personal and political situation. Given the recent rumours about his private life, he might have looked with favour on such a measure as the Films and Publications Amendment Bill which is seen as an attempt to muzzle the media. Similarly, the recent efforts to discredit him politically as his interim term draws to its presumed close might have discouraged him from taking a step, unusual and controversial in itself, which his critics within the ruling party could well exploit.

This show of executive independence will be particularly welcomed by those who have observed that the African National Congress has a marked tendency to use its numerical preponderance in both parliament and its various committees to pursue party rather than national interests. The questionable role of Scopa, the public accounts watchdog committee, in the arms deal affair has been a classic case in point. This country’s early experience of democracy has shown how crucial the separation of powers and the various constitutional checks and balances can be, especially when one party is numerically dominant, and Motlanthe’s action is reassuring.

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