Parliament: A travesty of democracy

Douglas Gibson says the DA should not allow discourse to continue at its current debased level (Nov 18)

If Julius Malema pulled down his pants and flashed his bottom at the Speaker in parliament, his own supporters would applaud. The commentariat would probably write approvingly of the impact he was making as an opposition MP. But most of adult South Africa would not be amused.

The goings-on in parliament on Thursday night (November 13) were appalling. Chaotic scenes of disorder with MPs shouting and screaming abuse and insults at each other and at the chair; presiding officers failing to maintain order; the Serjeant-at-Arms stationing the SAPS outside before the debate began, clearly anticipating disorder, and then summoning them to enter the National Assembly to remove MPs; DA and EFF members mixing it with the SAPS; MPs injured and taken to hospital. It was a travesty of democracy.

No one can be proud of what happened and it ought to stop right there. South Africa's young democracy cannot afford a political discourse conducted at this level. If that becomes the tone in parliament, one can only imagine how impossible it will become in the streets. What is to be done?

The ANC, only six months into its five-year term, is clearly on the skids. This is reflected in the National Assembly. Despite a large majority, the government increasingly abuses its position in a vain attempt to whitewash a president who is a political liability.

The Speaker made the cardinal error of a second coming, forgetting the words of 2 Peter 2:22: "The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire." The so-called tripartite alliance is unraveling and ANC MPs are starting to feel the cold wind, knowing that many of them will not be re-elected the next time South Africa goes to the polls.

The DA leader, Musi Maimane and the new Opposition Chief Whip, John Steenhusen are both doing well and earning respect for their solid speeches and contributions. Predictions that Julius Malema would outshine them have not been borne out by events, although he has an uncanny ability to capture headlines. It is becoming apparent that grandstanding, calling the president a thief, shouting and screaming have a limited impact after a while and the EFF contribution to parliament up to now has merely been to make it interesting and sometimes amusing.

Now is a very good moment for everyone on all sides of parliament to take a deep breath. The EFF does not need to behave. The more it rants and screams, the more effective it will feel - it is not in parliament to carry on a rational discourse and communicate that to the voters.

The ANC needs to point to a record of success in government if it is to remain competitive. They have a mandate but that mandate is not unlimited. Chaotic scenes in parliament do not add lustre to the government.

At their peril will DA members allow the parliamentary discourse to continue in the present vein or even deteriorate further. They must remember that two can play that game and the DA which aspires to governing metros and city councils throughout South Africa after the elections in 2016 needs to be able to govern competently when it assumes power. Democracy entails the right of the majority to rule and protects the minority from the abuse of power by the majority.

 We are four years away from the general election in 2019 and it is becoming feasible that we could have a coalition government in which the DA with its current twenty two per cent of the vote will play a significant role. It is also possible that the DA either alone, or in coalition could be ruling more provinces than just the Western Cape.

South Africa's democracy is very young. We have not even passed the essential democratic test: can power pass through the ballot box instead of through the barrel of a gun? If the political discourse deteriorates to the extent that we all play the the man (or woman) and not the ball, we face a very difficult future indeed. Politics must not be allowed to sink to the level of the gutter where our representatives lose all sense of proportion and where we hate each other, instead of differing while respecting the essential humanity of each of us.

The presiding officers did well on Friday to hold a question and answer session with the media about the parliamentary chaos. It is a little unusual for the Speaker and her deputies to explain themselves and hold themselves accountable to the public. That was a good start.

It was a pity the Speaker dodged the important question about the incompatibility of her dual offices as chairperson of the ANC with that of being the Speaker by saying that all MPs are members of parties. No-one asked her to leave the ANC. Many wonder, however, whether a less high profile political person might succeed in restoring the prestige and the authority of the Speaker's office. She needs to think about this.

The Whips of all parties should get together soon and talk in private for a full day or more about restoring civility and a reasonable discourse. South Africa expects its politicians to be robust and feisty. That must not change. But parliament must set an example of tolerance and mutual respect. Anything else will be a travesty of democracy.

Douglas Gibson is a former Opposition chief Whip and ambassador to Thailand

This article first appeared in The Star, on November 18 2014

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