New dawn, old problem: Our democratic system

'How many presidents have we, as constituent members of our supposed republic, a popular sovereignty by definition alone, elected? None. Our toothless Parliament elects the president, not us,' says the writer (Reuters)

'How many presidents have we, as constituent members of our supposed republic, a popular sovereignty by definition alone, elected? None. Our toothless Parliament elects the president, not us,' says the writer (Reuters)

COMMENT

The State of the Nation address (Sona) on Friday February 16, given by South Africa’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, heralds a new dawn for South Africa. After a decade of maladministration, venal politics, corruption and the wrecking of a number of important state institutions, any alternative would have filled South Africans with optimism.

But there is little doubt that, even if we are dealing with the same party, the leadership, determination and discipline that Ramaphosa will bring to South African politics will be very different indeed to that which we have become depressingly accustomed over the last decade.

South Africans should be thankful to the persistence, virtue and courage of opposition parties, civil society, the courts and media houses — in particular investigative journalist units such as amaBhungane — but an obvious fact should not be forgotten. It was the ANC, supposedly corrupt to the core, that was, ultimately the agent of change.

The ANC — not the Constitutional Court, nor the Economic Freedom Fighters, nor the Mail & Guardian nor the South African citizenry — brought Zuma’s calamitous and corrupt reign to an end.

The man who connived his way into power on the back of the ANC “recall” of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, has himself suffered the same fate at the hands of the party he has served his whole life.

If we lay aside the extremes of free-marketer pessimism and the blind, ecstatic optimism of those joyous at the end of the Zuma era, and look at the detail of Sona in the clear light of this new day, two questions emerge: What does Sona promise? And what follows from another “recall”?

First, this Sona was not any ordinary old Sona. Much of it was broad-brush. It was the speech of an incoming president laying out his vision, not really a programme of what government hopes to achieve over the coming year.

The hope, sense of renewal and determination were evident throughout: to root out corruption, rebuild state capacity, create jobs, support education, re-industrialise the South African economy, and so on. Moreover, on at least a couple of occasions, the president said he would personally drive and ensure throughput.

What a breath of fresh air, on a number of levels — responsible leadership and concrete ideas from a great orator (well, maybe, “great” is too strong, but he does have the ability to draw in and command his audience). “Send me, Mr President” is already a catchphrase and the president even included a timely tribute to the late, great Bra Hugh Masekela. And, finally, this was a speech actually written by the leader speaking.

This Sona promised serious action on a number of fronts, not only to stabilise the ship of state, currently in pieces on the rocks, but also to spur on South Africa’s depressed economy. Growth, development, reducing inequality and turning the tide on rampant unemployment requires a capable state. Ramaphosa clearly understands this and, given that he takes over a state in pieces, and a country divided, he has a mammoth task. But he is not short of ideas.

His lengthy focus on making 2018 the year of turning the tide on corruption was of key importance. This includes his specific points on how to intervene decisively to sort out the parlous state of South Africa’s state-owned entities, particularly his acceptance that many of the problems are structural and that it is vital to remove directors from any role in procurement.

The creation of a commission to restore the South African Revenue Service — not so long ago one of the country’s flagship public institutions — his insistence on reviewing the size of the state bureaucracy, and his clear hints that nonperforming ministers will lose their jobs all registered strongly. His stress on the need for government to lead in creating an environment of stability and certainty should, as with his other points, be music to the ears of most South Africans (and to the markets).

Despite the criticisms that will inevitably follow from those on the extreme left and right, not to speak of those who seem more interested in the moral rectitude and the honesty of government than in the consequences of their actions, this was a speech of careful balance.

Ramaphosa knows the business world intimately, he is a product of labour union politics and is a seasoned, delicate and forceful constitutional negotiator. These experiences were etched into this speech. He knows he has to satisfy both the markets and the dire need to rectify South Africa’s past injustices.

Expropriation of land “without compensation” but in a way that “increases agricultural production and ensures food security” is a case in point, as were his specific suggestions on free higher education and the minimum wage. In a manner reminiscent of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Ramaphosa — the original firebrand trade unionist, if tempered by lucrative years in the private sector — is now the balanced social democrat.

In a world where populist politics is reaching dangerous extremes — and in a place devastated by bare-faced, structural destruction, corruption and useless leadership — South Africans are producing a collective sigh of relief. A tumultuous and terrifying era has not only ended but the cloud that has hung over our country has a clear silver lining, which brings me to my final point.

Citizens of South Africa should not relax. All politicians must be kept on their toes, kept accountable, kept “awake at night”. The only problem we have is that the manner in which this new leadership has come about is another sign of an old, deep, macropolitical problem that Ramaphosa is very unlikely to confront, though he should.

Given our macropolitical structures — the electoral system and the balance of powers — we are not able to hold our political representatives accountable, and that includes our president. It is no accident that the executive, and Jacob Zuma in particular, were able to consistently use Parliament to make a mockery of citizen concerns and the Constitution.

Our party-list proportional representation system means that we elect parties without any real link to our needs and interests in the areas in which we live, work and love, among other things. Parliament is a lame duck and real change is not brought about by us, the people, the sovereign but rather by the party in power.

How many presidents have we, as constituent members of our supposed republic, a popular sovereignty by definition alone, elected? None. Our toothless Parliament elects the president, not us. That is a problem which needs rectifying. So too, relatedly, are the effects of our distorted electoral system.

The events of the past two months prove a depressing reality: the only way we can really get rid of a “rogue element” or a “constitutional delinquent” is through this strange process of the liberation party undertaking a “recall” of one of its “deployees”.

South Africans have come a long, long way since 1994 but besides the deep and clearly obvious scarring along racial, class and gender lines, we are scarred in another way: the constitutional and political institutions to which we are subject are products of their time, a time of real and understandable fear and are made to ensure against the return of anything like the horrors of apartheid. The result is, ironically, that we as a citizenry, especially as represented in Parliament, do not have the means — besides revolution — to properly affect change.

The democratic miracle is stillborn.

We will not, cannot, mature into a full-blown democracy until these macroeconomic structures are reconfigured and proper redistribution of wealth and power ensue. If Ramaphosa really wants to seize this new dawn, if he really wants to change the course of South Africa’s democratic history, he needs to think even more boldly.

The reconstruction of our shattered state is vital but as he does so he could also reconfigure it. It needs deep, structural change to properly empower the people to hold its political representatives accountable. Moreover, were we to do so, two further vital things would follow: the ANC would, finally, have to transform itself from being a liberation movement into a political party, and we may all start to realise that the party is not equivalent to the state.

Professor Lawrence Hamilton is the SARChI/Newton research professor in political theory at the University of the Witwatersrand and Cambridge University

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