The morning after SONA 2015
Eusebius McKaiser has some serious thoughts on political jokes the night before.
Johannesburg - After the first citizen's delivery of the 2015 State of the Nation Address, a few conclusions strike me as irresistible: a) the speaker, Ms Baleka Mbete, is not a constitutional democrat; b) president Jacob Zuma ought to be recalled by the governing African National Congress; c) the ANC itself isn't blameless for the poor state of political and institutional leadership; d) and it is a red herring to think compelling criticisms of the opposition justify the flouting of the principle of legality. Let me offer argument for each of these four conclusions, and end with a reflection on their significance for democracy, overall.
A) ON MS MBETE
Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, accurately cited two legal problems with how the speaker handled points of order being offered to the House through her, from opposition MPs. Malema correctly stated that, firstly, Mbete cannot make a decision about a group of MPs - as she erroneously did last year too, and then could not sustain in a legal forum - but ought to identify a particular MP, exercise discretion in relation to what they have said or done, and, with reference to lawful power, justify whatever directive she then gives. That plainly did not happen. For example, when EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi was ordered by her to leave the House, he had not even offered a substantive intervention; he had not explained why he was rising on a point of order. That means she essentially asked him to leave the chamber as one would ask someone to leave your own house - unfettered exercise of nominal power.
But the problem for Mbete is that parliament is not her private house. It is a public institution and her position is governed by rules, and by a constitutional duty to demonstrate rationality when she acts, even if she acts from a source of law that grants her discretion. So, Malema had a better grip here on the nature of the speaker's role: individual MPs had to be identified, and no they should not be treated ever as a group, or a political party, from her vantage point, and she must offer reasons.
Secondly, and related to this failure to distinguish MPs as individuals, the speaker pretended she was a sangoma who could tell us what was inside Malema's head even before he spoke, and by fiat then imposed her ruling on another MP's point of order on Malema, BEFORE EVEN HEARING HIM OUT.
That cannot be lawful. She had to, however irritated, process wise, let him speak, and then rule on the content of the point of order being raised by Malema. Irritation, even with a gift from the ancestors to read MPs' minds, do not, in law, justify exercising discretion about a point of order you have not heard.
Given, furthermore, that this is now a pattern of her adjudication of parliamentary sessions, I cannot see room to reasonably disagree with the conclusion that she does not get, or does not care for, the content of the rules that define her role, and which ultimately is grounded in constitutional supremacy. In the worst case scenario (which it is my contention is reality here), she is not a constitutional democrat. In the best case scenario, she is unfit for this particular role in our constitutional democracy. Either way, she ought to be legally removed from this role as soon as possible, since entrenching a democratic culture is more important than her political CV.
B) SHOULD ZUMA BE RECALLED?
The ANC does not have to recall every president that is an ANC member. But, actually, the recall of president Thabo Mbeki is a useful comparison. As someone who finds the impact Mbeki's early AIDS denialism had on tens of thousands of lives morally despicable, I do not miss him, and do not think it was a bad thing that he was recalled.
But, can we reasonably, if we are honest with ourselves, say that president Zuma is performing better as CEO of SA Inc than Mbeki did? I don't think so. Sure, he does not get as angry as quickly; he can tolerate Eusebius writing a column calling for him to be recalled; white South Africans can breath easier than before (my tongue is firmly in my cheek); and, on some indices, like in fact life expectancy, he has done better than Mbeki.
But the bottom-line is that our ship is without a captain. The state of the state is, phew, so lamentably poor that it requires an essay on its own. As I alluded to in a previous analysis piece - 'Know what Zuma thinks?' - the president does not show thought leadership, nor practical oversight, of the critical areas of economic and social struggle. We remain, to be trite, one of the most unequal societies on the planet, unemployment refuses to go below even 30%, inter-group relations are as bad as they have ever been; the returns we get for the GDP slice that goes to education is embarrassingly low; and meanwhile he chuckles along, makes dodgy appointments in key parts of the security and legal institutions, and, mostly, is just an absent first citizen in more ways than one.
Look at how he simply continued reading his speech last night as if police did not just enter parliament with guns: The worst moment in the history of parliament since apartheid's formal demise. How did he react? As if nothing had happened. That is not poor leadership. That is no leadership at all.
Now can someone make the case for why he should NOT be recalled?
C) THE ROLE OF THE ANC
We need a conversation about the governing party, fellow citizens. We isolate Zuma, and even Mbete, as if they landed in such crucial positions by simply walking into the Union Buildings, or sitting down in the seat of the speaker of parliament. Not so. They were elected and seconded to these constitutional roles by the governing party. In other words, they serve, as they love to tells us, 'at the behest of the ANC'. That is true; not least because we do not have a constituency based electoral system, nor a good mix between it, and proportional representation. But that is old hat.
The point is this: A consequence of the electoral system we do have means that political parties have agentive power to change who they send to parliament, who they second to the state, and who they nominate to be the president of the country. The ANC is wholly responsible for the continued leadership vacuum right at the top, because it wrongly pretends, both through silence by some and through shocking propping-up arguments by others, that all is well, and so supporting president Zuma, even in the face of evidence of devastatingly poor leadership.
This means that even if president Zuma resigned, or was recalled, the democratic culture we need to entrench in our country will not yet have arrived. Why? Because the status quo indicts the ANC organisationally, as much as it indicts the president as an individual. At Mangaung much was made of the importance of organisational renewal; it is not happening, and this can be seen by the ANC allowing itself to be held hostage by Zuma, at the expense of us, the citizens.
The conclusion here, surely, is that not only ought the ANC to ask whether it is time to recall Zuma, but it needs, in addition, to introspect about the internal political culture that allows Zuma to continue exercising power irresponsible, and not in service of delivering - as it were - a better life for all.
D) WHAT ABOUT THE OPPOSITION?
I am, frankly, exhausted by one or two of my fellow analysts who miss the point about the EFF- and many ANC supporters too. It does not matter that no money was paid back today as a result of EFF ructions. It does not matter that lives are not transformed on the ground as a result of EFF ructions.
Firstly, the EFF is not in power, so even if they delivered speeches quietly, and with an air of upper class politeness, that too won't change the state of the state, or get Zuma to realise he is not helping us as a country by remaining in charge.
So, if you do not like the EFF, or for that matter if you do not like the DA, assess the significance of your political analysis of the EFF and the DA, be it the aesthetic horror of EFF politicians looking like naughty kids, or be it a DA that you think still out of touch, in your view, with the pulse of the nation. So what?
The nexus questions, flowing from yesterday, are whether or not the actions of the speaker were lawful, whether they were in accordance with the letter and spirit of the constitution, whether president Zuma demonstrated presidential leadership qualities, and whether the erosion of parliament, through the use of lethal force threats and securocratic arrogance, are good for our democracy? They are not. And frankly the state of opposition politics is less immediately a problem for our actual lives than what a governing party, with its hands on the levers of power, do.
The implications of all of this is simple: We must, as citizens, reflect on the practical meaning of having electoral power to hold politicians accountable and how we use this mechanism; and we need to support oversight structures between elections much better than many of us, especially in the middle class, do: support is needed for Chapter 9 institutions; for the press to remain free; for civil society organisations like Section 27 and Equal Education, and others to help us achieve social justice; and we need to challenge whether we ourselves are loyal party supporters first, or whether we are constitutional democrats first?
As for the speech the president delivered- I don't remember a thing, other than a chuckle betraying a discombobulated mix of nervousness and hubris; and yet another long list of plans and targets, as if the state ever lacked feasible plans.
It's about delivery, Number One. But let me not ask too much of you. You are tired.
* McKaiser is the author of A Bantu In My Bathroom & Could I Vote DA? A Voter's Dilemma
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.