The political road ahead

2008-10-02 08:49
Prince Mashele

How does it happen that a democratic country finds itself led by a president who is not democratically elected? While the United Kingdom and Botswana have recently experienced this apparent oxymoron, most South Africans would argue that it is not desirable.

Yet an internal ANC whirlwind has just dropped us exactly where we did not wish to land; at the Union Buildings occupied by a president who did not contest elections.

Few would disagree that the past week or so has provided lovers of political drama with the best of episodes since 27 April 1994. At the same time, those who take issues of democracy seriously waited anxiously for the political boat to stabilise.

As we now hold our breath to see how "caretaker" President Kgalema Motlanthe will steer us into Zumaland after the 2009 elections, we may need to look back and ask: What lessons could our nation draw from the political storm that whisked former President Thabo Mbeki into powerlessness?

Key among the issues that should necessarily occupy the centre of our national dialogue is the critical politico-jurisprudential question: Should politicians be removed from office only on the basis non-binding inferences made by judges? Objectively, this question should be approached with two figures in mind: Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki - for they both suffered a similar fate.

Political judgment

Lawyers might also want to help us understand the respective weights carried by a technical legal finding and a mere inference contained in one judgment, as in the case of the judgement delivered by Judge J Nicolson. In this regard, the outcome of the NPA's appeal is, indeed, something political observers wait with crossed fingers for. If the judgment were to be overturned by a higher court, would it not recast the spotlight on the justness or otherwise of the ANC decision?

South Africans may also need to consider ways of insulating our democratic system from the vicissitudes of internal party ego-fights, such as those we have recently observed in the ANC.

That the decision to sack former President Mbeki aroused our nation's mixed emotions is a fact too obvious to mention. The question that ordinary citizens may have been asking themselves is: How could I, as a citizen, have had a say as to whether Mbeki stays or not?

If we followed a presidential system, in which the electorate directly elect the President, it would have been impossible for the ANC, unilaterally, to remove a state President without the involvement of the electorate. Of course, this kind of a system is not popular with political party bosses who have no regard for a fully participatory democracy.

Equally important is the role of parliament in safeguarding our democracy. Seemingly, our current system does not entirely protect our Parliament from becoming a mockery or a rubber stamp. In the current context, it is almost a certainty that ANC parliamentarians would say "Yes Lord" to a statement issued by Luthuli House, even if they personally do not agree with it. If they were to say "No Sir", they would be removed and replaced as speedily as Thabo Mbeki was, regardless of whether what they say is in agreement with public interest or not.

How, then, could we save our Parliament from sliding further into the abyss of mockery? This is a question those who have and love political power would not wish to entertain, but is it, nonetheless, a matter our nation must debate.


The most obvious and plausible way of strengthening Parliament is to allow the people directly to elect members of parliament. In this regards, it would be possible for parliamentarians from any party to say "No Sir" to a political instruction from party headquarters that may not be in the interest of ordinary voters.

As we apply our collective minds to all possible options, we should recall the central question we are dealing with: How could we insulate our democratic system from the vicissitudes of internal party ego-fights, such as those we have recently observed in the ANC?

But there is a possible stumbling block to the possibility of reconsidering our democratic/electoral system: the unwillingness of political parties to be open-mined about available possibilities.

If we were to adopt presidential and constituency-based systems, political bosses in party headquarters would lose much of the power they currently have. This would certainly have serious implications for the enforcement of internal party discipline, and would further instil a new political culture within parties and society in general.


On our part as citizens, we cannot escape an important question: to what extent would we permit a degree of constructive disruption of our current political party system as we search for ways of protecting ourselves from the whims of irresponsible lovers of political power?

The events of the past few weeks or so have also raised sharply the question of a political alternative to the ANC. There are those who now call for the ANC to split in order to strengthen our democracy. Few would disagree that such a split would inject an energising dynamic to our country's body politic and to our democracy in general.

But banking on a possible split of the ANC would not urgently deal with current systemic problems that gave us a president who is not democratically elected. What requires the necessary attention of our national dialogue is a special focus on post-apartheid South Africa's electoral system, and a consideration of the desirability of a presidential system of governance.

As we do all this, we should remember the original question: How does it happen that a democratic country finds itself led by a president who is not democratically elected?

  • Prince Mashele is Head of Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies

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