South Africa's Parliament in Decline

2015-01-04 22:08

Last year was politically significant for South Africa. Apart from celebrating 20 years of democracy; the 2014 Elections saw the African National Congress’ (ANC) majority reduced even further; the coming out of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) as a ‘serious’ political party; and, the revitalisation of the country’s interest in Parliament.

The latter is particularly surprising: Parliament has been denounced, before and after democracy, as “irrelevant,” “weak,” “lacking independence,” and merely there to “rubber stamp” Executive decisions.

The EFF, with its Marxist rhetoric and pseudo-militarism, deserves much credit for this. Despite increasingly favourable coverage for the Democratic Alliance (DA) under its former Parliamentary Leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, and the party’s significant; it is the EFF that has rekindled the country’s curiosity in an often ignored institution. The DA and its predecessor’s dogged performance in the House over the past 20 years has been virtually ignored since the EFF’s arrival. And for good reason.

The EFF has, through a total disregard for parliamentary procedure, managed to successfully put both major parties on the back foot. Like UKIP, it has successfully capitalised on its ‘outsider’ status by painting both the ANC and the DA as being ‘establishmentarian’ and ‘out of touch’ with the needs of the masses – which it claims to represent. Through often deplorable insurgent tactics, it has rattled the ANC (now facing a black opposition party, fluent in ‘revolutionary’ machismo) and flat-footed the DA (which feebly alternates between being a serious opposition or replicating the EFF’s cheap tactics).

Both parties are, in part, to blame for the EFF’s rise. With rising unemployment and an increasingly difficult economic environment, many (black) South Africans feel as if the (black-dominated) ANC is too self-serving, and the (historically white) DA is too far removed from them, to solve their problems. Despite their efforts, the EFF has managed to manipulate their shortcomings. Whether the EFF’s popularity will be sustained remains to be seen. Many examples of third-comer parties show that South Africa seems most comfortable with a two-party system (no matter how asymmetric the power balance may be). The United Democratic Movement (UDM), Independent Democrats (ID), Congress of the People (COPE), and Agang are all cases in point.

Irrespective of the praise the EFF is receiving, and there is much of it, for “reconnecting” Parliament with the people, their presence in the House is meretricious at best. It may be stylistically appealing but is devoid of substance. And while the ANC and DA have not refrained from hastening what will become Parliament’s demise, by deliberately undermining its independence and being complicit in the EFF’s wrecking-ball performance, the EFF deserves special blame.

Its schizophrenic approach to its parliamentary battles is particularly dangerous. On one hand, they are only too happy to dispense with the rules; on the other, they can also be its most ardent defenders. Self-interest above all else determines how they react in any given situation. While politicians may be allergic to consistency, the EFF’s fickleness is subject to special scrutiny given how much it has negatively impacted Parliament’s ability to do what it is supposed to.

By changing the way in which the media, and voters, evaluate Parliament, away from legislating and towards from-the-floor theatrics, it is inevitable that both major parties will be dragged into a disastrous race to the bottom: more interested in scoring headlines than doing their jobs. The logical is simple – Mark Twain’s warning comes to mind: ‘‘Don’t argue with an idiot. They drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.’’

Of course, the temptation to fight back is irresistible when the media have and continue to vacillate between servile hero-worship and outright rejection of the EFF. It is not that the EFF is wholly unworthy of praise – quite the contrary. Rather, it is for the media, and the major parties too, to realise what the EFF – a newcomer party with little currency – is up to. And, they should rise above it.

This is not only in their interest, to avoid being swept away in the rising tide of populism. You cannot out-EFF the EFF. It is in South Africa’s interest too. Many cynically believe becoming a politician is a means of earning a salary for doing nothing. If Parliament continues on its present trajectory that cynicism will be proved true no matter how many front pages it racks up.

*** This article was first published on The News Hub***

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AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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