Towards open debate

2007-11-23 00:00

As apartheid collapsed, a remarkable error was committed. Civil society organisations folded, assuming that the ANC would provide a political home for all those committed to a democratic future. The ANC, it was felt, was a broad church of tolerance and debate where all members could participate in shaping the future.

And so it was, for a while. Up to a point this had been the culture of the internal anti-apartheid movement. But no one can pretend that this has any resemblance to South African politics today. The recently-published book by Andrew Feinstein, former chair of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), adds evidence from a former insider.

It has long been plain that the independence of Parliament and the separation of powers between executive and legislature, vital to democracy, can no longer be assumed. In November 2000, Essop Pahad, enforcer for the presidency, commanded the all-party Scopa to reverse a unanimous decision to investigate the arms deal. History may judge that this was the point when the possibility of parliamentary democracy, rule by the representatives of the people, died in South Africa.

On crucial issues leadership makes a decision and no further debate, protest or publicity has any effect. Much of this autocracy is based on personal loyalty forged in exile and struggle. The danger is that it could become a permanent political culture.

Without greater openness and a willingness to consider constructive ideas that come from outside a narrow political orbit, South Africa will not prosper. Those who wish to make a contribution, like Feinstein, are treated like outcasts. But it is possible that the ANC monolith is disintegrating. The tripartite alliance is wobbling and the succession debate refuses to go away. Most of the media remains defiantly independent and civil society has woken from its slumbers.

South African voters need a range of policy options put forward by various parties, subject to vigorous, informed public debate and liberated from the ANC’s oppressive centralisation and political infighting. Then the country can make progress towards a real “national democratic revolution”.

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