Marius Oosthuizen
Marius Oosthuizen

Parliament isn’t broken – our political economy is

To make sense of the anarchical tendencies recently witnessed in Parliament, we should pay attention to two key voices that recently gave us unprecedented insight into the state of South Africa’s political economy. The first came from Reverend Frank Chikane, reflecting on his experiences during more than a decade of public service in the Presidency. The second came from newcomer to the Presidency, business tycoon and former unionist, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Their revelations are telling, and we should be concerned. They speak to the deep systemic issues that are simply playing out on the floor of the National Assembly. The first relates to the character and culture of the state under the current ANC government. The second concerns the system of cross-sectoral patronage that has emerged in post-apartheid South Africa.

Reading Chikane’s book entitled The Things that Could Not be Said one cannot help but notice the pervading culture of suspicion that has gripped Chikane’s former colleagues in the state. Chikane’s account of public service under all our democratic presidents, points to a growing survivalist posture by those in power, constantly calculating the state of play. Their rationale is rooted in an “us versus them” perspective, imbued with the notion of a “balance of forces” with which to contend. Such a militarist strategic approach is certainly appropriate in the context of war, where one’s enemies seek to exact one’s destruction. In the context of politics though, and governance in particular, it results in the mystification of the actions of other actors on the observer’s own ideological terms, leading to an absurd miscalculation of the extent to which all actors are actually interdependent. Examples of this are abundant, with ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe noting the party’s suspicion at the serendipitous opposition to Jacob Zuma from the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Public Protector. One would think that Julius Malema and Thuli Madonsela are allies in a conspiracy to oust the president, if Mantashe was to be believed. Not to mention the more recent claims about CIA agents and cockroaches infiltrating our institutions.

Parliament is not broken, no, our politicians are instead paranoid, see an enemy looming behind every critic and opponent, plotting to overthrow them in the hallways of every contrary institution.

As Alex Boraine similarly argued in his recent account of the state of Parliament, What’s Gone Wrong?: South Africa on the Brink of Failed Statehood, these cultural elements are the results of the ANC’s legacy as a militant struggle movement and continue to persist, casting a shadow over our organs of state and setting the current tone of government.

The second observation that should concern us, is the elitist system depicted by Ramaphosa in his statement to the Marikana Commission of Inquiry. In the statement, he defensively describes the inner workings of an interwoven relationship of mutual benefit between a ruling business elite, and those in public office. A complexity which he of course embodies personally. Vested interests, on both sides, have become a nested system of mutual interests. In technical terms, we are witnessing the emergence of a “panarchy” of patronage, a maze of interconnected circles of beneficiation of the wrong kind that only benefit a few insiders.

The reasons why these developments should be of concern are numerous. For one, the suspicion that characterises the state creates an environment of accusation and distrust. These are the seeds from which witchhunts and political bullying have flourished throughout history across the globe. They are the hallmarks of the regimes that have occupied the Kremlin from Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Putin and were the breeding ground for the dictatorships of Idi Amin and Mao Zedong.

They provide the rationale and justification for security services interfering and intelligence operatives interfering in Parliament. Furthermore, the arranged marriage between political and business elites resulting from the negotiated settlement and subsequent attempts at BB-BEE, unwittingly depicted by Ramaphosa, is equally worrying in that it constitutes the beginnings of an oligarchical ruling class, which mobilises state resources to protect private interests.

Globally, such forms of incestuous connectedness have led to the autonomy and integrity of the state apparatus being degraded and to private resources being mobilised for predatory gains. It happened to have been the virulent model that informed the mercantile endeavours of the colonial powers in earlier centuries, a legacy from which we have hoped to escape.

This is not the manner and mode of democratic freedom for which many South Africans paid the ultimate price.

It is my view that South Africans demand robust democracy grounded in substantive equality, in every sense of the word, not merely “the vote”. That is what lies behind the complaints about public-sector corruption and private-sector collusion, behind the insistence on justice in terms of “Nkandla”. In fact, the only crescendo of public opinion which rings louder than those is the demand for substantive social and economic transformation. All of these are of course interlinked. These are the real forces being kept in balance that will define our national destiny.

If an overly-sensitive and suspicious ruling elite, are allowed to double up as an economic hegemony with interests to protect, ordinary citizens will inevitably become isolated from power and prevented from pushing back against institutionalised injustice and the abuse of power. These are the kinds of eventualities that saw Pussy Riot arrested by Putin and saw Edward Snowden, paradoxically, flee the free West for refuge in Russia, and is leading to elected members of Parliament being ousted, beaten and dehumanised.

Democracy is an imperfect system I concede, but South Africans will insist on a democracy in which government serves the good of the people and not the politically connected alone. A democracy in which business is conducted fairly, transparently, and with a healthy measure of social consciousness. A democracy in which freedom of opinion, freedom of expression and freedom of speech is held in high regard. A democracy in which a citizen is as powerful as a president.

What should our response be to these two symptoms that now mark our political economy? There are those who are driven by a self-preserving suspicion and lash out in irrational finger-pointing tirades at opponents they consider to be enemies. There are those who find themselves imbedded in a system of patronage that is not only unjust, a betrayal of our valued democratic legacy, but simply unsustainable and dangerous. There are the rest who hope for a way back from the precipice.

Due to the deep-seated loyalties from where our domestic political alliances in South Africa arise, combating these symptoms will likely only be possible through a self–reflective change from among our leaders themselves. Many citizens are too blindly aligned to be critically engaged.

Our only option is that thoughtful leaders acknowledge the extent of these two elements, and truncate them within their sphere influence. This demands a higher order of leadership than the constituencies of such leaders demand. It implies that political leaders relinquish rhetoric in favour of rational debate, but by those in power and those in the opposition. It implies that business leaders relinquish questionable gains, in favour of good, honest business. It requires leadership of a higher order then we have mostly seen to date.

Until such leaders step up, I am reminded of the admonition that ” … we do not have the leaders we desire, but the leaders we deserve”. On the part of citizens, an awakening is required to the reality that healthy democracy requires sustained agitation. We should not underestimate the depth of the democratic ideal in the hearts of South African citizens. I cannot imagine that they will tolerate petty politics and predatory business indefinitely. Our challenge then, is not to fix a broken Parliament, but reimagine our entire political economy and ensure that we dismantle not only the structures of injustices created by colonialism and apartheid, but also those being fermented by greed, power and pride.

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