Mondli Zondo

Making the case for the dissolution of Parliament

2017-08-14 12:52

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Last week, every eye in the nation was glued to the parliamentary service channel as we braced ourselves for a thrilling political drama.

In an episode that puts House of Cards to shame, we watched as opposition politicians put out their best performances all in an effort to remove President Zuma from office.

As expected, Zuma survived this latest motion of no confidence thanks to the overwhelming majority of the ANC in Parliament. 

While Zuma supporters were making their way to Cubana in Greenpoint to celebrate what they viewed as a victory, the opposition vowed that the battle was far from over.

The leader of the DA immediately announced his new path forward: the party would table a motion in the National Assembly to dissolve Parliament and to hold an early general election.

The reactions to this announcement have been mostly negative which shouldn't come as a surprise as the notion of an early election is uncharted territory in our country.

Part of the apprehension towards this latest action by Mmusi Maimane is that many view it as yet another doomed gimmick by the opposition and I don't believe the country has been presented with a compelling case to dissolve Parliament.

The DA has made the call to hold an election early election because the motion to remove Zuma was unsuccessful, which led the party to conclude that "the ANC no longer enjoys the confidence of South Africans", as Maimane would later say. 

It is clear to most people that this cannot be sufficient reason to drag voters to an election particularly when we had one a year ago during the local government elections. Election fatigue is a thing.

While many of us are disappointed that Zuma is still the head of state, we also understand that nothing untoward happened when members of Parliament voted on the no confidence motion.

What we saw was the very best of our democracy. A motion was tabled, voting on this motion happened through a secret ballot and members on both sides of the House voted in its favour. The motion was ultimately defeated.

There is nothing undemocratic in any of this, instead what would appear undemocratic is throwing one's toys out of the cot by demanding another election simply because you didn't have your way. We must be careful of the precedent this would set. 

A few weeks ago, the Western Cape legislature held a debate on a motion of no confidence in Premier Helen Zille. The motion was tabled by the ANC as a result of Zille's remarks on colonialism, but because of the DA's dominance in the legislature it was never going to succeed.

The ANC would have been punching above its weight had it then demanded an early provincial election because of this loss. Spare me the "Zille cannot be compared to Zuma" defence and focus on the principle: losing a motion and your dislike of an incumbent are not sufficient reasons to hold an election.

Although I disagree with the DA's motivations for calling an early election, I believe there is a credible case to be made for the dissolution of Parliament based on facts and not emotions. 

I must begin by dispelling the view that calling an early election is tantamount to seeking regime change. Our Constitution, the most progressive in the world, provides for this through section 50.

Parliament can be dissolved if 201 of its members vote to do so. This is a constitutional mechanism and it would be dangerous for any of us to buy into the ANC's 'regime change' mantra. This provision is not unique to South Africa as many parliamentary democracies around the world have called early elections and their voters understand that this is an ordinary course of democracy. 

More recently however, electorates tend to punish politicians who call for such elections. In 2016, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called an early election which resulted him winning with a reduced majority of just one. 

Following Britain's decision to leave the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May called an early election in June this year. Although her Conservative Party won the election, she lost her parliamentary majority and has had to enter into a deal with the far right Democratic Unionist Party to remain in power.

Interestingly, the trend is that the party in government calls for an early election because it is confident it will be re-elected. I do not know of many cases where an opposition party does this. 

I believe there are parallels to be drawn between May's reasons for the election and the reasons I believe are cogent enough to call an election in our circumstances. 

May called an election because she required a mandate. I would argue that since the 2014 election the ANC has lost its mandate and South Africans need an opportunity to elect a leadership to steer us into the future. 

The following question should be the test of whether or not an early election is needed in any country: is there a material change in circumstances since the last election that would require voters to go to the polls again? In our context I would say yes, there is.

In Britain the reason was Brexit and what the future off the UK would look like outside the EU. The people were given the chance to decide which party they wanted to have lead them through this period. We have reasons to be given a choice too.

In my view, the basis of holding an early election is that the manifesto on which the ANC was elected in 2014 is redundant as it no longer applies to the changed political and economic landscape we now find ourselves in. Simply put, the ANC and every other party need to ask voters for a fresh mandate to govern.

In its 2014 manifesto, the ANC touted the economy and the creation of jobs as its main goals moving forward. 

That manifesto stated, "In the next five years, despite the global economic outlook, we are determined to act decisively and boldly to increase investment in the real economy and infrastructure, stimulate faster levels of inclusive growth, speed up social development, substantially reduce poverty and unemployment and place the economy on a qualitatively different growth path." 

If we consider just that provision, not only has the ANC failed to deliver on any of its objectives in the past three years but the conditions under which these were promised have now changed.

The facts are out in the open. The credit downgrades to junk status by ratings agencies mean that we will not be able to enjoy bold investment in the real economy or infrastructure. We will also not be able to improve social mobility or achieve inclusive growth as these downgrades hamper our ability to borrow which affects whatever social programmes envisaged in this manifesto.

The ANC has also failed to reduce unemployment which stands at a record high of 27.7% which is higher than the 25.5 % of 2014. More importantly, on the question of economic growth, the country has now shrunk to 0.7 % according to Statistics SA while the World Bank has projected a growth of just 0.6% for us. So much for placing us on a "different growth path". 

It is clear that a new approach is needed and voters deserve a chance to choose who should lead this effort.

This is also clear to the ANC. The fact that the party now trumpets "radical economic transformation" is a mild concession that it has failed to deliver. This situation has caused much policy uncertainty as the new finance minister, Malusi Gigaba, learned when he had to drop the word “radical” during a gathering of foreign investors at the World Economic Forum in Durban this year.

The ANC cannot simply assume that South Africans know what radical economic transformation means, what it would looks like or that it is what voters want. The only way to answer any of these questions is to turn to the electorate and to let us decide. 

- Mondli Zondo is a Mandela Washington Fellow; former President Barack Obama's flagship programme for young African leaders. He writes in his personal capacity. 

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