Undemocratic party

2008-07-21 00:00

At the heart of the spectacular failure of most African attempts at democracy building is that ruling political parties and leaders have failed to internalise the values of democracy in their everyday life.

In fact, at country and continental levels, African political leaders, movements and elites — although many professed support for democracy — have largely been unable to internalise a set of values, norms, beliefs, attitudes, patterns of behaviour and way of doing things, which are democratic.

African National Congress general secretary Gwede Mantashe’s unprecedented attack on the judiciary and the ANC’s National Executive Committee’s (NEC) endorsement of it, is a case in point. Of course, everybody has the right to criticise decisions of the judiciary or any other democratic institution, but that is not the point here. What is is that Mantashe could label the Constitutional Court, “counter-revolutionary”, meaning it is an enemy to be destroyed, at a closed meeting of the ANC Youth League. Mantashe’s criticism is not ordinary. His voice has the weight of the ANC. Not only that, the NEC is the party’s highest decision-making body between national conferences. Its views represent the official view of the ANC. This is very dangerous in our democracy. In fact, the very heart of our constitutional system and its values are at risk here. The charitable view is to attribute both Mantashe’s and the NEC’s extraordinary undermining of the Constitution to the fact that they may not understand the workings of our constitutional system. That itself is damning.

ANC Youth League president Julius Malema also called critics of Jacob Zuma’s opportunistic and power-hungry shenanigans to become president, even if it leaves democratic institutions permanently damaged, counter-revolutionary. This is in the same undemocratic genre. Equally worrying is Malema’s statement that he is prepared to kill to get Zuma appointed South Africa’s president. Astonishingly, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has endorsed this. It is clear that the culture of demonising and intimidating critics and of rubbishing independent public institutions, such as the Human Rights Commission, which is exercising its democratic mandate to be a watchdog against the abuse of power, is now being repeated by the new faction in control of the ANC. Ironically, these are the very people who ousted Mbeki and his inner circle from the leadership of the ANC because of their undemocratic behaviour, unaccountability and indifference.

The tone of the public debate in South Africa is not in the democratic spirit. Viewing critics, opponents and competitors as enemies to be liquidated, goes against the values of the Constitution. It impoverishes the quality of debate, discussions and public policy by intimidating people who could have contributed positively into withdrawing from public life. This will mean that only the most extreme views will dominate public debate. Policies adopted will not only be inappropriate because they lack critical scrutiny from the widest spectrum of expertise in the country, they will also turn out to be expensive. A policy that was not scrutinised before it was adopted, is the building of match-box low-cost houses far from public transport and workplaces. In the end, the occupants of these houses often sold them and moved closer to their workplaces, even if it meant living in informal settlements again. In the end, the poor suffer the most from the undemocratic behaviour of their leaders, who are supposedly representing their interests.

It is good that the ANC leadership has committed itself to rooting out incompetent leaders, starting with the dismissal of Western and Eastern Cape premiers, Ebrahim Rasool and Nosimo Balindlela. However, unless the ANC leadership also sacks incompetent pro-Zuma leaders, the firing of Rasool and Balindlela cannot be seen as anything but a purge of pro-Mbeki supporters. If this is the case, the practice under the Mbeki presidency of rewarding incompetent or corrupt loyalists and firing hardworking and committed people, for even mildly criticising government policies, will appear to be business as usual under the pro-Zuma ANC leadership.

If political leaders don’t internalise democratic values and only use them when it suits them, the chance of our democracy turning into the lasting sort, is virtually zero. It is especially important for new and diverse countries such as South Africa to have leaders who show an unwavering commitment to the values of the Constitution and the democratic system, especially during times of stress. They should do so, even if it comes at a personal political cost — that is democratic leadership, which is something South Africa appears to be tragically short of at this very uncertain moment in its democratic history.

• William M. Gumede is the author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC.

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