By Ntombenhle Khathwane
What happened during the State of the Nation Address hopefully serves as a catalyst to push us as a country to re-examine how our democracy works. To say that our democracy is in decline because of the events leading up to and including events on Thursday evening would be naïve of us. Our democracy has never been the shiny example we always imagined it to be.
I imagine the conditions and assumptions that existed at the time of determining the electoral system and other processes in our democracy were in such a way that it was believed that the human beings chosen to represent us in Parliament would always be like the supposedly infallible heroes that led us to this democracy. Human beings that are selfless and only motivated to reversing the enormous damage done to our society by apartheid and colonialism, and seeing a South Africa that is equitable in every imaginable way. These assumptions have proven false, and with every passing government they are proven wrong and there is an urgent need to relook at how our democracy is organised.
This is normal, things change, therefore the way things are done needs to change. I have learned to be Team South Africa and not Team ANC, EFF or DA. I watched the goings-on on social media with horror last month during the January 8 celebrations and during the national elections in 2014, as celebrity after celebrity declared their unwavering support for the ANC. Off course there’s nothing wrong with openly declaring your political affiliations. But upon reading writings by influential public figures like Khaya Dlanga I decided that support for a political party in this country is very similar to support for a football team, the emotional attachment is so strong yet in my view, misplaced. I wish the emotional attachment would be geared towards a better South Africa for all. This political party fanaticism is a habit I wish would stop and we be more fanatic about ensuring South Africa becomes the great country it can be. That way we take to task seriously anyone and any organisation that impedes our progress.
Allowing for mediocre performance and finding excuses rooted in the past — which at times are relevant, but many times are not — only gives the government permission to drag its feet on delivering at a faster pace than it is. By not becoming fanatical about a better South Africa means another generation will grow into and inherit a society that doesn’t fight for the best for all its people because we instead want to hold onto the glorious ghost of a political movement. Because yes, most of us have abrogated our responsibility to political parties. Political parties are the sum total of the people in that leadership, people who are not infallible, we know this, we have seen this in so many countries around the world. So why do we keep holding onto the notion that the current ANC is the same one that liberated us? Because it just isn’t.
I am an avid fan of many sporting teams and individuals like most South Africans. And we all go through some temporary anguish when our sporting teams or individuals don’t do well. But it is temporary. With me the anguish ends before I even turn in for the night. Yet the unquestioning support we see for the ANC makes it difficult for the country to move on. There are many reasons the ANC is not performing as well as it should as government, one of the main ones is that it has too much power vested in it by us the people. Elections in the case of South Africa are just not good enough a power or performance check.
Last year I attended a talk by Andrew Feinstein and he was talking about ethics in leadership by sharing his story on the arms deal. He went into details about the emotional difficulty he had at being an ANC member of Parliament (MP) and questioning high-ranking members of the ANC on corruption relating to the arms deal. It was hard for him because never did he imagine having to turn against members of Mandela’s ANC, going to the media and exposing them and eventually having to resign from Parliament and the ANC because the ANC collective was choosing to protect those of its members that were implicated in corruption.
I was not surprised because during my days employed in the Mpumalanga legislature I wrote a paper about how we can make South African legislatures work better and be better accountable to the people. Because from within Parliament it is easy to see that the way in which legislatures are configured, there is nothing that motivates parliamentarians to really do a good job of holding the Executive accountable, they are simply an extension of the Executive because of the overwhelming number of ANC members in Parliament and importantly because of the way they become MPs or MPLs.
One area we could at least look and change immediately is how political parties, the ANC in particular, selects its members or representatives to legislatures because the current set up makes MPs and MPLs representatives of the ANC and not representatives of the people of South Africa, and there is a big difference. We have heard of the humongous sums of monies that government departments cannot account for, and we have heard of similar amounts being lost due to corruption and we’ve never seen heads roll. Yet, as much as private-sector corruption is as crippling to citizens as public-sector corruption is, we have seen private-sector participants in corruption get hefty fines and that is a deterrent to further collusion and corruption.
Can we at least get an open-list proportional representation system that allows us to know who is being put on lists and affords opportunity to know why they are considered for the list to Parliament? The privilege to lead in public sector needs to be earned and recognised by the communities that leaders and representatives will serve not only by the few ANC members that attend conferences. This would be an important step towards jump-starting our democracy again. Parliament currently does not do the work it is meant to do, it simply passes laws drawn by the Executive, it has not done much in enabling citizens to be effective in their public participation and does not do a good job at holding the Executive accountable. The time for rewarding people positions as MPs and MPLs because of their contribution during their struggle must end now and we must get politicians who have earned their stripes as activists in their communities in the recent years.
Ntombenhle Khathwane is an entrepreneur who writes and researches the politics of identity and social justice.