Playing ‘gotcha politics’

2009-11-28 10:58

By Wilmot James

REFLECTING on my virgin parliamentary term

after being elected to represent the Democratic Alliance (DA) after this year’s

April elections, I had some interesting observations about the institution. I

was a groentjie (a greenhorn), as they say in Afrikaans. I certainly had

expectations of Parliament and my role in it.

The best way to start is by describing a recent parliamentary day

where some of the difficulties I have, philosophically or otherwise with how our

Parliament is organised, were illustrated.

My day started with a committee meeting. Entering the room I went

over to the civil servants who were our guests but, holding her hand

­imperiously up high, the most ­senior one asked me not to interrupt as they

were in the middle of a conversation at that moment.

Impolite? Yes. Rude? Perhaps. But the more important point that

this conduct illustrates is the widespread failure to understand the separation

of powers.

In a democracy members of legislatures make laws, courts adjudicate

the laws and government ­administers the laws, each according to their own rules

of procedure.

There are rules governing the separation of powers. The rules are

there to check against the arbitrary use of power and to provide balance in the

system as a whole.

In developed democracies the etiquette is that civil servants never

approach legislators and that they only speak when spoken to. In the US they go

quite far and have a congressional liaison office that channels all

communication between the two arms of government.

The point is to prevent political interference in the

administration of state.

For a civil servant – no matter how senior – to tell a legislator

what to do and how to behave is an offence elsewhere. But in our political

culture it happens a lot, even routinely. I have witnessed junior clerks telling

Members of Parliament (MPs) what to do, compounding the indiscretion by treating

members of one party in one way and members of another party in another


As I turned towards my seat in the committee room a ministerial

­assistant approached me to say that I appeared to be on the “offensive” in my

recent newspaper writings and that I was going “overboard”. It was not the first

time that he could not contain his temerity. Once he had the nerve to tell me

that I had forgotten my “progressive” ­credentials.

Why had I, he remarked, joined the party that represented the rich?

I said we represented everybody and would serve all South Africans regardless of

class, race, gender or geography. My party supported, with the Congress of South

African Trade Unions, the idea of a basic income grant – or had he not noticed,

I asked? My immediate constituency is Mitchells Plain, which is poor by anyone’s


In spite of his so-called progressive stance, the man sees not in

terms of class but of race.

When I link Mitchells Plain to the DA he sees “coloured people” not

“working people”, and dismisses the issue as a result. When he looks at the

bourgeoisie he sees white people. His line of vision is racial and not

class-based, and in that respect, he is empirically stuck in the past.

The separation of powers has implications for how parliamentary

committees conduct themselves. They are part of the law-making process and they

scrutinise government, holding the civil service to account. Outside the sphere

of the state they scrutinise public bodies to see if government is doing its job

properly. Some of our committees throw their weight around and tell civil bodies

what to do.

Not only must civil servants know their place in the separation of

powers, they must also be non-partisan. At the very least it must be an ideal to

which civil and social services such as policing must always strive. The reason

for it is critical to a stable democracy?– to ensure continuity in government

while the politicians change guard.

The principle becomes apparent when there is always a real chance

that different political parties will assume power at different elections as you

have, for example, in most of the European countries, North America and,

increasingly, many Asian and South American ­countries.

Continuity in government ­increases the chance of citizen ser-vice

being constant and unbroken.

But even in our democracy, where the ANC is so consistently

dominant, it is important to observe the principle. The ANC has not, and as a

result it is so ingrained in government because of the belief that they will

govern until “Jesus comes” – presumably again. It will cause ­chaos for a long

time to come after they are elected out of office.

There was the further issue of ­co-operative governance that needed

some thought after the DA took the Western Cape province.

In a stable and genuine democracy the ANC’s behaviour should be to

gracefully concede defeat and then work cooperatively to make government deliver

services for the people. I thought the slogan, “working together”, suggested


I also thought that Parliament would organise itself to make

working together more than a slogan of the superficial cheerleading by ­minority

parties of the majority party. Naïve perhaps. Why not have the deputy speaker

from the official ­opposition and distribute committee chairpersonships and

their deputies along proportional lines? Is that an act of outrageous or unusual


In this way parties would learn to work together, understand better

the rhythm of power and share responsibilities that enhance the credibility,

efficiency and skill ­levels of Parliament’s denizens.

There are further issues of speaking time and debating style, of

mixing “gotcha politics” with joint effort so that there is better


There is also the comfort of knowing that the country will always

be in good and safe hands because we share experience of governance. I know that

there are individual MPs across parties who share some of these views but we

have not found our voice, at least not yet. It is doubly difficult because we

appear to be heading in the other direction.

Returning to the committee meeting I confronted another problem

head-on: our minutes and documents are very badly written and presented, so much

so that I think they are an insult to the intelligence of MPs. The written

English is ­ungrammatical, punctuation is inconsistent and the idioms are that

of a Grade 7 pupil.

Being the last meeting of the year, my colleagues wished to close

out, as I did. The chairperson suggested we adopt the reports on the

understanding that corrections would be handed to the committee clerk. Having

diligently done this repeatedly to no effect in the past I objected but was

overruled. Someone said not all of us were first-language


Others asked why the chairperson had not acted on this issue and

sent the clerk for English lessons. Why not spend a little money on finding an


Surely we cannot waste the committee’s time by having MPs serve as

an editorial committee. It is not our core purpose in Parliament.

The mediocrity bequeathed by the ANC unfolds in front of our eyes

but only we see it.

The committee clerk is an affirmative-action appointment. He cannot

do his job properly. A central part of his job is to record and write and yet he

was clearly not tested for language competence – or if he was then he was not

tested properly. He should be fired.

Instead, the problem was swept under the carpet. Mediocrity

prevails. Lowered standards become the norm and our official documents are an


The committee clerk grinned at me. He clearly did not think he was

not good enough. Most of the MPs did not appear to think he was not up to the

job. The civil servant trumped the ­legislator on grounds so putrid that the

room reeked of my humiliation?– a semi-literate clerk triumphing over a


If that was not bad enough, worse to come was my journalism. I was

found guilty of “indecency” for writing about a mayor who drives an ­Audi Q7 in

a town where people have no water, a fellow MP said.

I found it funny to be accused of being indecent for writing about

­indecency. A full 30 minutes were devoted to putting me in my place.

The ANC MPs were asked to stay on. Merry Christmas, they


  • James is shadow

    minister of higher education and training

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