When the people came to Parliament
Protests have dominated the political agenda this year from the EFF to angry students and unions, writes Craig Dodds
THE YEAR ended almost as it began for Parliament, with its business put on hold by parliamentary staff members of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union *Nehawu), as MPs battled to complete the programme.
In February, President Jacob Zuma was the focus, with the EFF making the running and Parliament at the centre of the nation’s attention.
Now, as a fitful year draws to a close, Zuma’s appearances in Parliament have become, barring his compulsive laughter, almost uncontroversial. The debate has moved on from Nkandla and Parliament has reverted to being just one among a number of points of contestation.
By the time the National Assembly adopted the report of the ad hoc committee on Nkandla in August, accepting the police minister’s view there was nothing for the president to repay, the heat had gone out of the battle.
This was not because opposition parties (or ordinary citizens) agreed necessarily, but because minds had long been made up either way and there was nothing left to debate.
The EFF and presiding officers, meanwhile, have tempered levels of confrontation, mostly avoiding the ugly scenes that marked the State of the Nation address.
The EFF will already have an eye on next year’s local government elections and know it is unlikely to be elected to run any councils solely on the strength of its ability to humiliate the president.
Like other opposition parties which hope to grow beyond that role, it needs to polish its credentials as a potential party in government.
First at local level and, should it win any councils, it will be closely watched to see how it fares (and therein lies a potential trap).
It also needs to prepare for possible coalitions in councils where there is no clear winner and neither of its two most likely partners in such a scenario – the ANC or DA – would be able to sell the deal if their voters viewed the EFF as a reckless force.
EFF leader Julius Malema’s visit to the UK this week will have been calculated to reinforce his respectability.
If he tells the former colonists and present corporate tycoons to their face what many refrain from saying in public, so much the better.
Parliamentary politics has also been overtaken by developments on the street and on university campuses.
Economic pain – and largely static levels of still racialised inequality – has turned into increasing social ferment and the politicians have been caught flat-footed.
MPs were digesting Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s three-year spending plans when the tide of protest swept into the parliamentary precinct, instantly rendering his words obsolete.
Not only was the government forced to concede within days to the demands of students for no fee increases but the much bigger question of fee-free university education – along with transformation of their institutional cultures, curriculums and academic profiles – is now firmly on the table.
Zuma’s stock response in the face of irreconcilable demands – in this case the expectations of students versus the constraints on the fiscus spelled out by Nene – the commission of inquiry, is designed to defer the moment of truth far enough into the future for emotions to have cooled by the time that there is an outcome.
But the bubble in which Parliament has been able to operate until now – insulated by social and physical distance from the bleak experiences of the majority – has been popped.
That the students chose Parliament and the Union Buildings for special attention shows, on the one hand, their appreciation of their significance. On the other, it shows their intent to collapse the boundaries between formal and social power.
It can only contribute to the responsiveness of a democracy if there is a direct feedback loop between citizens and their representatives, demonstrated by the eagerness of MPs to “find the money” for free university education in the days after the protests.
But there is also a danger of democracy being subverted if the voices of only the most organised and closest to sites of power are heard.
For example, no matter how legitimate their grievances, essentially about the quantum of performance bonuses, the demands of the parliamentary workers, in pursuit of which they brought the institution to a halt at times, cannot be equated to the needs of students or the masses of youth languishing in joblessness far from cities and news camera lenses.
These competing demands have to be mediated somehow, so they can find expression in policy and budget allocations and democracy, including but not limited to elections, remains the most workable mechanism.
The students have provided a template, already mimicked by the Nehawu protests, for other causes to follow.
And, failing an unexpected improvement in the country’s economic fortunes, there is every rea- son to expect this may develop into a trend in which scattered community protests that have remained mostly local until now will coalesce into more regionally and nationally focused movements organised around common interests such as water, jobs or food prices.
These will be testing times for leadership at all levels, demanding vastly improved levels of patience, responsiveness and accountability.
It is a moment that could make or break democracy, depending on whether those in power respond with a securocratic reinforcement of the space between them and the masses or become better at listening.
Both impulses have been on dis- play in the past month.
Parliament, too, will have to reclaim its place at the centre of the political scheme or risk being passed by.
There is work to be done, starting with the youth, who have thus far shown limited appetite for electoral politics if their voter registration levels are anything to go by.
They are clearly engaged politically, but don’t appear to find their interests reflected in politics as embodied by Parliament.
Nor will listening exercises alone suffice.
The legislature already has a provincial roadshow called “Taking Parliament to the People”, but the people have chosen, instead, to come to Parliament – a much more effective arrangement for those who can manage it.
MPs will have to make greater efforts to show there is a direct relationship between votes cast in their favour and that the interests of their constituencies are being served.
Surveys – one by Afrobarometer out this week – consistently show trust in this relationship is on the decline.
This is hardly surprising when the Afrobarometer survey is read in conjunction with the general report of Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu on audit outcomes for the national and provincial spheres of government.
He notes that, while there have been incremental improvements in the number of clean audits, especially of national government departments, those areas through which the bulk of government services are channelled – health, education and public works – are still characterised by deviations from proper financial controls or such poor book-keeping it’s impossible to tell how the money was spent.
Briefing journalists on the report this week, Makwetu singled out oversight authorities and parliamentary committees in particular, for failing to ensure there were consequences for such breaches.
There have been signs of increasing rigour in the oversight work of some committees this year, notably in the way the police committee has dealt with the SAPS management’s bid to evade civilian control, but in other cases MPs continue to choose to look the other way when powerful figures are involved.
Searching questions are disallowed on spurious grounds and excuses accepted at face value.
But students have shown if debate is stifled inside Parliament, it will probably blossom outside it and take on a life of its own. Parliament can choose to be the site of critical dialogue or a political backwater amid a popular awakening.
RED CARD: EFF MPs are ejected from Parliament after chanting ‘Fees Must Fall’ in support of protesting students and disrupting a speech by Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene.