Whipped: What the ANC's Parliamentary Appointments Tells Us

2014-06-15 16:01

Parliament (CityPress)

Given the sheer size of the ANC in Parliament, and the impact of proportional representation on MPs, the ruling party’s anointment of its committee chairs and whips normally draws little attention. Although chairs and whips should, in theory, act as a vital bulwark against Executive domination of the Legislature, experience has shown that they do little more than make Ministers’ lives much easier. Rather than hold the Executive to account, ANC committee chairs and whips have ingratiated themselves towards the Executive by stifling debate within committees and preventing real accountability from happening. Considering that parliamentary committees are the engine room of the parliamentary machine, this retards rather than advances legislative progress. Regrettably, the most recent ANC deployees in the fifth democratic parliament are no different.

However, the manner in which their names were made public, and the very issue of their names itself, are telling. Whether the Zuma administration planned to or not, they have allowed us to gain a vital insight into how the Executive intends to deal with Parliament during this term.

Firstly, it is noticeable that the committee chairs and whips feature many ‘big beasts’ of parliamentary politics, both past and present. Despite Zuma’s bloated Cabinet, it is clear that he sought to reward more MPs than he could accommodate. This would explain why several high-ranking MPs, who also feature high-up on the ANC’s NEC list, but who did not make it into Cabinet, have all been appointed either as chairs or whips. There are two significant consequences stemming from this:

On the one hand, it means that through patronage appointments, Zuma manages to keep many (important and influential) MPs on side. While many may have been disappointed that they may have not been elevated to the Cabinet, appointing them as whips and/or chairs means that (i) they receive a higher financial remuneration (as chairs and whips do); and (ii) their Cabinet ambitions are kept alive (as this non-Cabinet opportunity allows deployees to illustrate just how much they are able to help the Executive). In both circumstances, prospective MPs that have enough wherewithal to hold the government to account are subdued in their opposition by financial incentives and career possibilities. In both scenarios, those MPs that are most likely to provide intellectual and political leadership to newcomers and opposition MPs alike are coopted into toeing the Executive’s line.

On the other, it is clear that by deploying seasoned MPs to chair and whip committees, Zuma is not taking any chances. Between an enlarged DA and a rambunctious EFF, Parliament could possibly become more lively and robust than it has ever been before. With both the DA and the EFF being presented with enormous political opportunities to use Parliament as an easy point-scoring platform, a weakened Zuma (and ANC) is less likely to allow that to occur. In order to limit the political risk, and damage, arising out the institution, it stands to reason that Zuma would deploy battle-hardy colleagues to committees so as to exercise a firm grip over avenues of dissent. With the ad hoc Nkandla Committee alone, dangling like the sword of Damocles over his head, Zuma’s attitude is clear: Parliament will be deliberative in form but not substance. Real accountability and scrutiny of his government’s actions will be hard pressed. Or, at the very least, opposition MPs would be the only ones doing the questioning with no possibility of the ANC’s rank and file defying party lines.

(A cursory glance of the list adds further weight to these suspicions: there are no fewer than two former Chief Whips and two former Ministers serving as committee chairs. This is in addition to old hands that have served under previous administrations as chairs or whips too. Let's ignore the fact that Baleke Mbete, the former Deputy President and ANC Chair is also now back as Speaker)

Secondly, it is noteworthy that it was Gwede Mantashe who made the announcement and not Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. As I have written previously, this illustrates the scant regard that the ruling party has for the separation of party and state. The fact that Mantashe, who is not an MP and has no official position within the state machinery, made the announcement proves this. It is clear that Zuma has abdicated a significant amount of his responsibility as President of the Republic to Luthuli House and that within the top 6, it is Mantashe who is dominant, and not Ramaphosa. Why else would the Deputy President, who also serves as Leader of Government Business (and to a large extent, the leader of the ANC in the House), not make such an announcement?

Thirdly, and following on from that, it is clear that a Ramaphosa/Mantashe showdown is on the horizon. Zuma has previously stated that this is his last term as both party and state President. If Mantashe’s enhanced role within the ANC and government machinery is anything to go by, we can safely deduce that he is the preferred Zuma heir. By delegating power to him specifically, Zuma further alienates Ramaphosa and increasingly adds credibility to Mantashe. Although this may prove a risky strategy in that Ramaphosa could always turn around and divorce himself from an administration in which he serves, given the amount of power sent Uncle Gweezy’s way, it is likely to make Ramaphosa’s ambitions that much more difficult to achieve. After all, if he were to try and argue that he was so isolated that he had no say in what went on, it would beg the question why on earth he stayed in the first place? Much like how Kgalema Motlanthe discovered, Deputy Presidents are expendable and are often only useful for ANC elective conferences (to bolster slates that are running) and little else. Ramaphosa’s ambitions may be well known but whether it is the case that he will take over from Zuma after he steps down, given his present position, remain far from certain.

These may seem like seemingly pointless observations. They may be. But, for those who are interested in the subtle signals of the ANC’s governance to come, how it has operated thus far sends a loud message to those who are interested to hear it. Zuma and his allies are buckling down for a hard session. But more than that, they also have one eye fixed on the future. Expect more fireworks from this Parliament in the sense that freedom of speech, conscious and thought is going to be even rarer than it was in the last session. So too will the credibility given to the Deputy President by his own government.

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