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

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

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.

craig.dodds@inl.co.za

PIC­TURE: MICHAEL WALKER

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.

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