The Holy Trinity of successful democracies - Helen Zille

DA leader writes that the rule of law, accountability and a capable state are the three essential components of a functioning system

The Holy Trinity of Democracy

24 November 2014

On Saturday, the DA held its Gauteng Congress where 1200 delegates met to elect their provincial leadership and debate policy resolutions.  

Two weeks ago, the DA in the Eastern Cape did the same. 

In the coming months we will hold our provincial congresses in the remaining seven provinces, as we regularly do, at least once every three years.

Why is this even worth mentioning?

For DA members and supporters, our Congresses are an established routine that does not warrant discussion in this newsletter.  

Yet there could hardly be a more relevant topic for South Africa's future.

The process of holding regular, peacefully contested leadership elections at party congresses in South Africa, is truly exceptional.

We know that COPE, in its short life-span, could never convene a legitimate Congress (or what it calls an "Elective Conference").

And now we see the same thing happening to the EFF.  

Heralded a short while ago as the "real challenger" to the ANC, the EFF is battling to hold its provincial congresses, that are supposed to precede its National "People's Assembly" in mid-December.

We read that in Kimberley recently, "chaos erupted during the Economic Freedom Fighters' Northern Cape conference, as members armed with bricks, machetes and pangas tore into each other, trashing the venue and leaving a trail of blood".

In Gauteng, Julius Malema disqualified one of his internal critics, Lufuno Gogoro, from running for the provincial chairmanship.  Gogoro, whose supporters were also expelled from the Congress, has now hired a team of lawyers to obtain an interdict setting aside the Gauteng outcome and preventing the EFF's national People's Assembly from proceeding.

In the Eastern Cape a disgruntled EFF faction sought to hijack their provincial Assembly, and the police were called in to deal with "an attempted coup" by those unhappy with the current leadership. 

And in the Free State the EFF has already split, with disgruntled members starting up a rival populist party called the New Economic Freedom Front.   

ANC congresses are controlled by the promise of patronage from the winner to his supporters after the election.  But when the ANC loses power, and is no longer able to offer jobs, contracts and other perks to hold their party together, the system will unravel.

The in-fighting in the Western Cape, in the run-up to the ANC provincial congress, is so intense that controversial ex-ANC councilor, Andile Lili, claims he was shot in an assassination attempt orchestrated by rivals to prevent him from standing for the ANC's provincial leadership at their forthcoming congress.

So what makes DA congresses different?  Why are we able to have strong electoral contests that are held peacefully and produce legitimate results?

It is not because DA members are inherently better people than members of other parties.  It is because we practice what we preach.  We apply a simple but profound concept, universally described as constitutionalism and the rule-of-law.

Translated into everyday language this means:  we have a democratic process of drawing up our rules, and then we stick to them.  This makes our party work, in many different ways.  When it comes to elections, it means they are free and fair and produce an outcome we all accept, even if it is not what everyone wanted.  And those who won, commit to playing by the rules, and being open to challenge at the next election.

This formula seems so simple, as to be almost laughable.  But it is essential for democracy to work.

The leading theorist on the development of democratic systems, Francis Fukuyama, is right when he says three characteristics are common to all successful democracies:  the rule of law, accountability and a capable state.  I call these the "holy trinity" of democracy.  It applies not only to whole countries, but to institutions and organisations as well.

Whenever I mention these ideas, someone is bound to ask what relevance they have for South Africa's problems.  After all, the poor can't eat "the rule of law" or live in "accountability".  First deal with unemployment and homelessness, the critics say, before you talk about the "rule of law".

The answer is simple:  None of our other problems will be solved unless this "trinity" becomes embedded in our culture.  

Without them, any "democratic" system degenerates into chaos  --   like an EFF "People's Assembly" or a COPE Congress.  And such circumstances cannot deliver any outcome that benefits people  --  such as a growing economy, a functional education system or a reliable electricity grid.

The democratic "trinity" - the rule of law, accountability and a capable state -- is essential to progress, and what we call "delivery". 

The DA is the only party in South Africa that can put a tick in the box next to all three attributes.  We have our federal and provincial constitutions and our rules.  They were democratically drafted and adopted.  And we stick to them.  No-one is above them, and no leader can interfere in their application.  Leadership is "accountable", and our systems are competently managed.  This is our organizational equivalent of a "capable state".

At the other extreme, the EFF openly espouses what it calls "democratic centralism", a euphemism for dictatorship.  Julius Malema, the Commander-in-Chief, decides.  If you disagree with him, you are labelled a "counter revolutionary" or an agent provocateur.  At best, you have a "white tendency". And you are side-lined or expelled.

This approach will be the EFF's undoing.  It is unworkable in a country with as strong a democratic ethos as South Africa.

This brings me to the current problems in Parliament, which should be the point of convergence in any democracy between the three concepts:  accountability, the rule of law, and a capable state.    

The real issues have been overshadowed by the televised soap opera that has had people glued to their screens recently. Few analysts have understood that the core issue at stake here is adherence to "the rule of law" and the accountability of the President.

In terms of Parliament's rules, the President must answer questions at least once a quarter.  He does not have an option.  This is a key component of "executive accountability" in our Parliamentary system.

The Speaker must chair Parliament in a fair manner, according to the rules.  She has no option.  She cannot follow instructions from Luthuli House and allow Parliament to be abused to protect the President.

The DA will not allow itself to be drawn into a "political solution" that requires Parliament to protect Jacob Zuma from answering questions in the House. Such a deal would seriously undermine the very purpose of Parliament in our constitutional order.

These are not academic concepts.  They have profound practical consequences for every South African.  And events of the past week illustrated this more clearly than ever before.

This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.

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