The EFF' petty militarism versus Parliament: South Africa’s democracy will lose!

2014-10-15 08:11

The African National Congress has an enormous majority in the South African Parliament, unthinkable in comparable democracies around the world. It holds 62.15% of the upper house (National Assembly) and 8 of the 9 provinces in the lower house (National Council of Provinces).

The ANC can pass any legislation, which generally requires a simple majority. More worryingly, it can unilaterally pass constitutional amendments, including amendments to significant accountability provisions, which also do not require any special majorities.

The people of South African have rarely experienced the ANC’s power in Parliament because it has been willing to compromise on important issues. On occasion, the ANC has even legislated against its core constituency – poor and working class (black) South Africans – for the greater good of the nation.

Take for example nationalisation of mines and banks: the ANC decided to ditch the Freedom Charter's call for nationalisation. This move, decidedly, was against the wishes of its core constituency. Nationalisation would have increased the ANC’s bargaining chips and, possibly, increased wages and working conditions in the mines and living conditions in mining communities. However, nationalisation would have been disastrous for the economy and South Africa’s political stability. By jettisoning the idea, the ANC created breeding ground for pseudo-radical "transformative" entities such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

The same could be said about social spending. On one hand, many complain that government grants are meagre, a bad joke on the poor. Julius Malema, for example, promised to double social grants if his party was elected into government. Some, on the other hand, complain that grants enable apathy by the poor, thus creating a perpetual pool of ANC voters.

The ANC, as a matter of policy, opted to balance social security with large-scale, long-term investments in infrastructure, public health and education. This balance is hard to sell to both crowds (those who want more social security and those who want note at all) but it is the better option for the nation.

The greatest incident of ANC paternalism and compromise was during the same-sex marriage debate in 2005. On 1 December 2005 the Constitutional Court entered a judgment declaring sections of the Marriage Act unconstitutional and invalid to the extent that they excluded same sex partners from marriage. The Court gave parliament twelve months to fix the law.

The Court's decision led to a heated public debate. Some sectors of society – mostly religion groups and conservative traditional leaders – called for a constitutional amendment to do away with sex and gender equality.

Despite South Africa’s progressive Constitution, this was by no means an easy question. Opinion polls show that 61% of South Africans think homosexuality should not be accepted by society, while just 32% think it should be accepted.

On several occasions, state law advisors sent versions of the (then) Civil Union bill back to drafters because of noncompliance with the Constitutional Court’s decision and with the Constitution. The ANC took a rather blunt approach, allegedly prohibiting its members in the House from voting against the bill.

In spite of its many public gaffes, democracy in South Africa has worked precisely because the ANC been willing to take a less majoritarian and election-serving approach in Parliament.

Yes, the ANC has been unwilling to compromise on more executive questions, such as cabinet appointments. Moreover, it has a dreadful record of cabinet accountability. However, it would be hubris to suggest that Parliament is the only entity democratically empowered to hold the Cabinet accountable. Where Parliament fails, the courts provide a constitutionally-mandated accountability mechanism. This system works!

The EFF has cultivated a style of loud, empty and uncompromising petty militarism that is quite unlike how the South African parliament has worked in the past 20 years. That is not to say parliament has been sleeping for 20 years, no! If anything, debate in upper house is often robust. But, when it comes to order, compromise and general functioning of the House, all parties play ball.

My argument here is that the EFF will push South Africa towards majoritarianism. Parliamentary majoritarianism would compromise debate and fair process, which is very bad for the country–-especially for the marginalised and the voiceless.

When the EFF grandstands, howls and hackles, the atmosphere in parliament is contaminated; useful and sensible dialogue is lost. The claim that the EFF is bringing much-needed oppositional balance is, of course, utter drivel. The suggestion that all oppositional noise in Parliament is good for South Africans is unfathomable absurdity.

Let us postulate for argument sake a political party quite like the EFF: the Terre’Blanche Radical Freedom Front (TRFF). However, unlike the EFF, the TRFF stands for the interests of the "radical" white Afrikaner minority. Its members wear khaki shorts and farmers’ boots. It too constantly makes inflammatory statements about race, except these are statement about black people. Would you treat that organisation with the same deference as the EFF? My bet is no.

Democracy works at two levels. First, there are regular, free and fair elections, which are really the foundation of any democratic society. The idea is that citizens elect representatives to run state institutions. Second, there are state institutions (parliament, the executive, and the judiciary). For these institutions to function, those who have been elected as representatives of the people must work together, mindful of the interests of their constituencies and the country as a whole.

Parliament is badly unsuited to electioneering because, if it came down to it, the party with the House majority would ultimately win. The only way to bring change – such as the EFF claims to be doing – is to get votes.

The EFF’s erratic, unsubstantiated, and theatrical radicalism is not only ineffective as a tool to dilute the monopoly of the ANC, it is plainly bad for democracy!

The people voting for the ANC know its wrongs. They see their councillors suddenly emerge in opulence and aloofness. They see politicians morph into tycoons because of lucrative and shoddy government contracts. They see the ANC slowly chipping away at the country's foundational values for the private interests of its leaders. Shouting in parliament does not make ANC voters any more aware, nor does it provide them with an alternative.

The EFF appears to misunderstand its own constituency. It represents reasonably educated, thinking youths who are disempowered and marginalised by centralised power. These youths care about equal opportunity, not free handouts of plots of land and mining rights. They care about education, employment, healthcare and institutionalised corruption.

The EFF’s fascist personality cult of Julius Malema (oddly fashioned on Mao Zedong) does no better for these youths. Instead, it saddles the nation-building project, stupefying and disempowering the people who badly need transformation.

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