5 February 2009

South Africa: Voice of the People - Or is It the Party?


Johannesburg — HELEN Suzman, who died on January 1, used to say that she had an easier job than opposition MPs have today, because the Speaker protected her rights and the National Party (NP) respected Parliament as an institution.

Today's speakers are obedient party politicians, while the African National Congress (ANC) regards Parliament as a rubber stamp for decisions made at party headquarters in Luthuli House. It is amazing that anyone votes at all in South African elections -- Parliament is little more than a technical institution to process legislation.

An Afrobarometer survey cited in the recent report of the Independent Panel to Assess Parliament showed that only 2%-3% of South Africans knew who their MP was, against more than 80% in Kenya, more than 70% in Botswana and Uganda , and more than 60% in Lesotho, Ghana and Zambia.

Suzman was occasionally accused of giving the apartheid parliament a spurious legitimacy, but she used her position there with brilliance probably unsurpassed anywhere. Her questions prised the truth out of reluctant ministers. Like the best advocates, she usually knew the answers before she asked the questions, because she'd done all her homework, and been on one of her "go and see for myself" visits to pass courts or dumping grounds or prisons or hospitals.

Thus was she able bit by bit to strip away the camouflage, the complacency, and the lies until the truth about apartheid was plain for all to see. Suzman was the one whose forensic skills forced the NP to tell the truth about themselves. Hence her celebrated riposte: "It's not my questions that embarrass the country but your answers."

SUZMAN showed how to exploit an illegitimate institution, against huge odds, to promote legitimate goals. Yet today we have a supposedly legitimate institution which is not taken seriously by the majority party except as a component of the legislative process and source of jobs and party funds. Was the goal of the ANC's long struggle democracy or just power?

Fortunately, the report of the panel -- of which I was a member -- contains some ideas that could halt the slide of the post-apartheid parliament into ignominy.

The report ducked some critical issues, which is why I declined to sign it. Its proposals on what should be done about the arms deal, for example, are anodyne. Its recommendations on whether the Speaker should be permitted to hold high partypolitical office are mealy-mouthed.

But it did recommend changing the electoral system to one that combines the advantages of proportional representation (which helps minority parties) with those of constituencies (which promote grass roots accountability among MPs).

The panel noted how tenuous the links are between Parliament and the electorate. It noted various initiatives to strengthen these, including establishing "parliamentary democracy offices" and assigning or deploying MPs to "constituency offices". But it is absurd to talk of assigning MPs to constituencies that should have elected them in the first place. Suzman was not deployed to Houghton. Houghton sent her to Parliament.

"Public participation events" are also meaningless. Public participation in Parliament should not be an organised event, finite and stage-managed, but a continuing process whose starting-point is constituency-based MPs.

Opposition parties should ensure that electoral reform becomes a leading issue in the forthcoming election. They should also generate some public debate around a recent leader in The Star which said, "We deserve a parliament that is not a haven for crooks." Why? If we elect such a parliament, that is the one we deserve. Still, it would be nice to see all parties declare their support for the panel's proposal that nobody convicted of any kind of dishonesty should be able to sit in Parliament.

Kane-Berman is CE of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

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