The F-word: Effective opposition is about patriotism

2012-04-07 12:41

The British Parliamentary system has a concept called “His/Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” depending on whether it is a king or queen reigning at the time.

The concept comes from the British Parliamentary system and distinguishes the political party with the second highest votes – what we call here the official opposition.

I like the “his/her majesty’s opposition” phrase better than “official opposition”.

I like it because it is unambiguous. I like it because it makes nonsense of the view that one cannot be actively in opposition and still be loyal to one’s country or even its government.

I see it as making effective opposition an act of loyalty and patriotism.

Many opposition parties tend to be based on the template of “government proposing and opposition opposing”. This is often done in the name of keeping the majority party accountable to all the voters, for once it becomes the governing party it must act in the best interests of all citizens and not only those who voted for it.

In South Africa, the media often plays the role of the opposition. Ordinarily, this would not be desirable. But with a weak opposition and one that for historical reasons lacks the credibility it deserves, we must accept the inevitability of media and formations like Cosatu acting as opposition parties.

The question is whether they are loyal in exercising this role and if so, to whom they are loyal.

I defer to the wise words of Thomas Paine, who said: “The duty of a patriot is to protect his country from its government.”

ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe’s response to criticism from Nedbank chairperson Reuel Khoza is a stark reminder of why we need a strong media and civil society that can withstand the instinct of political elites everywhere to silence criticism or delegitimise it by calling it unpatriotic.

It is fashionable to seek to create the impression that criticism of the state is an act of disloyalty.

My sense is that the real question these leaders want to ask when they pretend to be asking about loyalty is whether we are loyal to them because they are in government as per a popular mandate. They tend to confuse themselves with the state.

It extends to suggesting that this disloyalty is de facto loyalty to opposition parties which, unlike in the UK, cannot and do not call themselves anybody’s “loyal opposition”.

In the same vein, it is unpatriotic to join in with those who, because of their own prejudices, can only see wrong in our country and refuse to believe that good things can come from South Africa.

While it may make sense for more established countries to have as their default position an anti-establishment bent, we in South Africa cannot express those sentiments without coming across as being in cahoots with projects that seek to undermine government based on the incontestable popular will of voters.

To be loyal doesn’t mean seeing our country through rose-coloured-glasses but neither should we look at it through muddied lenses.

Acting as a “loyal opposition” must mean we hold those in positions of trust accountable for how they exercise the power we lend them. Exposing them when they misuse it or demanding that they are accountable for public affairs is in fact an act of utmost patriotism, not treachery. It is being a loyal opposition to a people’s government.

Loyalty cannot be the obligation of only one part of the state-media equation. It requires that we all play our roles honestly and with integrity.

In the words of Minister of Human Settlements Tokyo Sexwale, “politicians shouldn’t do the things journalists write about and journalists shouldn’t write things politicians don’t do”.

» Follow me on Twitter@fikelelo

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