It takes courage to rebel

The mo­tion of no-con­fi­dence against Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma dis­played ten­sion be­tween party and con­science, writes

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

PRIOR to the mo­tion of no-con­fi­dence in Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma in the Na­tional Assem­bly, former Fi­nance Min­is­ter, Pravin Gord­han, among oth­ers, urged the ANC MPs to be guided by their con­science, im­ply­ing that they should break ranks with their party and vote with the op­po­si­tion.

The thrust of Gord­han’s ar­gu­ment was that un­der Zuma the pres­i­dency had be­come cor­rupt and morally com­pro­mised. There­fore, a vote against Zuma’s con­tin­u­ance in of­fice would be in the na­tional in­ter­est.

The fur­ther im­pli­ca­tion was that vot­ing for Zuma to go would be in the longterm in­ter­est of the ANC. The rea­son­ing be­hind this was that, un­less the party is to re­turn to the val­ues for which the lib­er­a­tion strug­gle was fought, it will wreak its own de­struc­tion.

The counter-ar­gu­ment by the ANC hi­er­ar­chy was that ANC MPs were bound by obli­ga­tion to the vot­ers who had elected them to vote the way the party in­structed. MPs in the South African sys­tem are not elected as in­di­vid­u­als, but merely as mem­bers of their party. To vote against the party line would be to over­turn the logic of democ­racy.

A fur­ther ar­gu­ment put for­ward by ANC speak­ers in the de­bate was that the op­po­si­tion was seek­ing un­con­sti­tu­tional “regime change”. This was quite cor­rectly chal­lenged. The op­po­si­tion pointed out that the mo­tion had been put in terms of the con­sti­tu­tion, and that they were seek­ing to re­place the pres­i­dent and not the ANC gov­ern­ment.

And yet, al­though the ANC ar­gu­ment was man­i­festly “rub­bish” (to quote Wits aca­demic Ivor Sarakin­sky in com­men­tary on lo­cal tele­vi­sion sta­tion eNCA), the de­bate high­lighted a very real ten­sion at the heart of South Africa’s democ­racy.

Should MPs have the right to vote ac­cord­ing to their con­science?

Uni­ver­sally, the rise of po­lit­i­cal par­ties along­side the ex­pan­sion of par­lia­men­tary democ­racy in­evitably came at the cost of the in­de­pen­dence of in­di­vid­ual MPs. It is rare to­day for any in­di­vid­ual not be­long­ing to a po­lit­i­cal party to se­cure a seat in any par­lia­ment.

Be­long­ing to a po­lit­i­cal party has be­come a ne­ces­sity, ex­cept in the most ex­cep­tional of cir­cum­stances.

In turn, be­long­ing to a po­lit­i­cal party re­quires that MPs or rep­re­sen­ta­tives sign up to a Faus­tian deal. If they want to progress po­lit­i­cally, they have to follow the party line, even on oc­ca­sions where they dis­agree with party pol­icy.

This is en­trenched in the com­mu­nist no­tion of “demo­cratic cen­tral­ism” – once the party has “demo­crat­i­cally” made its de­ci­sion, the in­di­vid­ual is po­lit­i­cally bound to im­ple­ment it.

In prac­tice, how­ever, party sys­tems are not al­ways so rigid as this im­plies.

Par­lia­men­tary his­to­ries are stuffed not merely with in­ter­nal party re­bel­lions, but in­di­vid­ual MPs vot­ing against their own gov­ern­ments. In­ter­nal re­bel­lions are prone to oc­cur where party lead­er­ships lose the con­fi­dence of their back­benchers (who are usu­ally re­lay­ing ex­tra-par­lia­men­tary dis­con­tent).

And in­di­vid­ual MPs may choose to vote against their party’s line – of­ten for re­li­gious or eth­i­cal rea­sons. They may also do so be­cause they see them­selves as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of con­stituen­cies or in­ter­ests that are of­fended by party pol­icy.

Po­lit­i­cal par­ties han­dle such prob­lems in dif­fer­ent ways. Of­ten they will seek to fudge poli­cies so as to con­tain in­tra­party dif­fer­ences. Al­ter­na­tively, mi­nor­ity fac­tions within par­ties may grow to be­come a ma­jor­ity and se­cure a change in party pol­icy.

Where par­ties are split down the mid­dle, party lead­er­ships may try to re­solve dif­fi­cul­ties by sus­pend­ing party di­rec­tives and al­low­ing a free vote (as dur­ing the UK Brexit ref­er­en­dum de­bate).

On key is­sues, in­di­vid­ual MPs who threaten to vote against their par­ties may be bribed by prom­ises of bounty for their con­stituents or by com­pro­mises made to rel­e­vant pol­icy pro­pos­als, al­though ul­ti­mately the threat of ex­pul­sion from the party lies in wait­ing.

In­di­vid­ual MPs may also be buoyed up by the honour that ac­crues to them if they are per­ceived to be stand­ing their ground on mat­ters of po­lit­i­cal or moral prin­ci­ple. They may earn the re­spect of their po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents as much as the brick-bats of their party col­leagues.

The vari­a­tions, in­con­sis­ten­cies and flex­i­bil­ity built into mod­ern party sys­tems clearly stand as a chal­lenge to the con­tem­po­rary ANC mantra that MPs are slaves to their party’s re­quire­ments. Yet the ANC po­si­tion is by no means with­out logic. It is indis­putable that un­der South Africa’s elec­toral sys­tem, as it stands, MPs are elected as party rep­re­sen­ta­tives and not as in­di­vid­u­als.

Na­tional-list pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion al­lows for no in­di­vid­u­al­ity of can­di­dates. Vot­ers do not have in­di­vid­ual MPs. They sim­ply vote for a party. Un­der this sys­tem MPs are al­lowed min­i­mal scope for con­science.

But, ul­ti­mately, the ANC has no an­swer to the pop­u­lar ex­pec­ta­tion that, when pressed on ma­jor is­sues, MPs should vote for what they think is right. They should vote against that which they think is wrong. They must be guided by their con­science rather than their pock­ets.

Vot­ers seem to ex­pect that when MPs re­fer to each other as “hon­ourable” that they should in­deed em­body “honour”. Yet equally, the pub­lic dis­taste for bla­tant po­lit­i­cal op­por­tunism, as dis­played dur­ing the floor-cross­ing episodes of yes­ter­year when mi­nor­ity party MPs jumped ship, mainly to join the ANC for per­sonal and fi­nan­cial rea­sons, it is clear that vot­ers ex­pect MPs to re­spect the out­comes of elec­tions.

Seem­ingly, there is no con­sis­tent set of prin­ci­ples and prac­tices which will sat­is­fac­to­rily re­solve the ten­sion be­tween party de­mands and in­di­vid­ual con­science. Yet what does be­come clear is that there is much more scope for flex­i­bil­ity, tol­er­ance of dis­sent, and – yes – free­dom of con­science in sys­tems where MPs are di­rectly re­spon­si­ble to con­stituents rather than, as in South Africa, they are wholly ac­count­able to their par­ties.

Is this why the ANC so forthrightly rejected the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Van Zyl Slab­bert Com­mis­sion on Elec­toral Re­form? The com­mis­sion rec­om­mended a mixed elec­toral sys­tem, whereby MPs would be elected on party plat­forms but from multi-mem­ber con­stituen­cies.

There is no es­cap­ing the ne­ces­sity of party sys­tems to get the job of gov­ern­ment done. Vot­ers un­der­stand the need for party dis­ci­pline. Yet as the vote of no con­fi­dence also shows, they also want MPs to have the courage to rebel. – The Con­ver­sa­tion Roger Southall is pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy, Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand.

Pic­ture: Henk Kruger/ANA

GO­ING NOWHERE: The Na­tional Assem­bly at the vote of no-con­fi­dence against Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma on Tues­day. Op­po­si­tion par­ties hoped a se­cret bal­lot would mean some MPs from the gov­ern­ing ANC might side against Zuma. The mo­tion, called amid re­peated al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion, was de­feated by 198 votes to 177.

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