South African politicians are notoriously bad at accountability. It’s always someone else’s fault: usually that of their opponent.

In most western democracies, however, politicians do still resign for reasons of accountability. This week the British Immigration minister, Mark Harper, bit the bullet because his Colombian cleaner turned out to be an illegal immigrant.

Harper could have exploited the wriggle room afforded by the fact that he had checked her credentials but had been duped by the forged Home Office documents that she produced. Further, acting on a niggling concern, he had then personally initiated the check by immigration officials that found the documents to be fake.

In his letter of resignation to Prime Minister David Cameron, Harper wrote: ‘Although I complied with the law at all times, I consider that as Immigration minister … I should hold myself to a higher standard than expected of others.’ Quaint but worthy of emulation.

In the past 20 years not a single South African politician has resigned as a matter of honour, or dishonour for that matter. Of course, were the practice to catch on here, both sides of the chamber in the National Assembly would be depleted of parliamentarians.

This week’s controversial march by the DA to the threshold of the ANC’s Johannesburg headquarters apparently proved a terribly important political point, but unfortunately none of the participants can agree what that point is. It’s not what they think; it is actually about the degree to which they, the politicians, are accountable.

DA leader Helen Zille says that the march, during which the police had to fire stun grenades to quell a number of brick and petrol bomb throwing ANC supporters, ‘proved’ that the ANC is a violent organisation that doesn’t respect the Constitution and ‘can’t be trusted to lead a democracy’.

ANC deputy secretary-general Jesse Duarte, says the march ‘proved’ that the DA is unpatriotically provocative and does not understand peace, and that the ANC will always lead because it is the ‘only organisation with a background of steady leadership.’

Both sets of ‘proofs’ are vacuous twaddle. Let’s unravel the conundrum from the other end of the string. Any group has a constitutional right to march and it is the job of the police to ensure that they can exercise that right freely and safely. It is also outrageous that the ANC alliance, with a nod and wink, has at times encouraged a thuggish response to those who dared ‘provoke’ it – the party that claims a divine mandate to govern – by entering its territory.

But while it might be courageous to illustrate the intolerance of your opponents by exposing your membership to potential violence, it is also dangerous. Especially for what was no more than a cynical publicity stunt: Zille’s chief-of-staff Geordin Hill-Lewis conceded to Daily Maverick that ‘we did need something controversial … to focus the public mind .. and this [the ANC’s failed job creation policies] is it’.

It is risky bordering on reckless of the DA, during the run-up to a general election in which political passions are running particularly high, to flirt with this kind of street confrontation. The last time that there was a march on the ANC headquarters, by the Inkatha Freedom Party in 1994, 19 people were shot dead by ANC security guards ‘defending’ the building.

By that measure, DA must be surprised and who knows, perhaps a little disappointed at this outcome: even-handed, almost exemplary, policing and no DA injuries. The ANC, for its part, has proved that it can, when the eyes of the world media is on it, control its street fighters relatively well. It was to this end, after all, that Duarte and Police minister Nathi Mthethwa were at hand on the scene, to keep the hot-heads chilled.

However, had there been agent provocateurs on either sides of the police line that kept the two groups apart, the march could have played out with horrifying consequences. Had that happened, the DA and the ANC would both have been to blame, except that neither would have admitted it and no one would have resigned.


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  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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