One could only imagine how the discussion went down at this weekend’s ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting that led to a rather astounding media statement released on Saturday. The ANC said it wanted Parliament to protect President Jacob Zuma and his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa from being humiliated and embarrassed by opposition parties. The ANC seems to be proposing “alternate” forms of accountability, such as Zuma and Ramaphosa addressing imbizos, instead of having to face Julius Malema and his militant red brigade in Parliament. This is officially the point where the ANC loses the plot of how a democratic state should be run. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
ANC national executive committee meetings are interesting phenomena in human behaviour. They are governed by some unwritten law of the jungle that requires members to stake their own political survival on declarations of praise for whoever is at the top of the food chain, and swear annihilation on their enemies. It’s how you would imagine the Sicilian mafia conducts board meetings – without the obligatory bloody shootout at the end.
There have been defining moments in time that illustrate how these meetings normally unfold. In 2002, former president Nelson Mandela went to an NEC meeting to try to talk sense into the ANC so that they adopt a more rational posture on HIV/Aids. At the time, the organisation was sitting by impassively as a human catastrophe was playing out, with government following the denialist line of former president Thabo Mbeki and his then health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, denying life-saving treatment to people living with HIV/Aids.
Mandela thought that he could appeal to the collective wisdom of the ANC leadership at that time so that they could force government to roll out a comprehensive treatment programme. Mandela was not prepared for what greeted him at the meeting. Speaker after speaker lambasted him for publicly contradicting the party’s policy on Aids drugs. Mandela left the meeting devastated, not only at the insolence but also the reluctance of anybody in the then 60-member NEC to break ranks with a herd that was defending an irrational and ridiculous position.
Six years later, the composition of the NEC had changed and the tide had swung against Mbeki. This time the post-Polokwane 80-member NEC was meeting to decide Mbeki’s fate after High Court Judge Chris Nicholson found that he had politically manipulated President Jacob Zuma’s corruption case. Again, speaker after speaker in the NEC meeting got up to vent condemnation of Mbeki and justify his recall from office.
It is the rule of the mob, the clinging to a false notion that defending and supporting whoever is leader of the party at the time is a political calling. It is the conflation of the interests of the party leader with that of the good of the organisation.
It is irrationality in its highest form, lobbed around in a room where the main political power of country is vested.
On Saturday, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe issued a statement in the midst of an NEC meeting to announce an appeal to Parliament to “restore to the House the necessary dignity and decorum, [and] appreciation of its rules”. “Amongst the issues discussed today has been the concerning developments in Parliament, particularly the obvious intention to humiliate and embarrass the president and the deputy president whenever they appear in the House,” Mantashe said.
The crux of the statement is this: “The NEC cautions against continuing this trend of negatively exposing the Head of State to disrespect and intended humiliation by a fringe group committed to undermining democracy”.
This means that the NEC decided that Zuma, and his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa, should not have to meet their constitutional obligations to account to Parliament as they stood the chance of being challenged and disrespected by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Mantashe did not name the EFF in the statement, but his reference to “fringe group” is a nod to previous colourful descriptions of the red brigade, such as “rebels” and Nazis.
It has been apparent for the some time that the ANC has no idea how to contend with the militancy and aggression of the EFF. The ANC has repeatedly condemned their behaviour and has tried to swing public opinion against Julius Malema and his crew. The problem for the ANC, however, is that despite the EFF’s audacious behaviour, they are not getting mass censure for their repeated assaults on the ANC leadership. If anything, the EFF’s protest in Parliament demanding that Zuma “pay back the money” for the Nkandla upgrades won them some leverage and respect outside their primary constituency.
It is clear that the EFF is becoming emboldened by the day and realise that turning Parliament into a battlefield is working in their favour. Other opposition parties are also siding strategically with the EFF as they appreciate that Malema & Co. are able to rattle the ANC like nobody else has been able to before. For the ANC this must be extremely disturbing as they now know that despite their howls of protest, the EFF is likely to continue dictating the parliamentary agenda by default, no matter how much control the ruling party has over the organs of state and institutions of Parliament.
The ANC NEC has now decided that they need to protect their senior most leaders from the wrath of the EFF. However, they want Parliament to shield the president and deputy president from attacks from the EFF and other MPs who might climb the bandwagon. Both Zuma and Ramaphosa’s parliamentary question sessions degenerated into shouting matches with the EFF hurling insults – and Floyd Shivambu’s middle finger – at them.
What is interesting though is that the Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete, who last week survived an acrimonious motion of no confidence debate against her, would have been in the ANC NEC meeting when these matters were discussed. Surely she and others who are knowledgeable about the rules of Parliament and the constitutional obligations on accountability should have cautioned the meeting that members of the executive could not dodge having to answer questions in Parliament.
It would also be expected that Mbete and many others in the room would have reasoned with the rest of the committee that it is not Parliament’s business to protect the president and deputy president, but to ensure that they are held to account. And if they are refusing to do so, surely Parliament should frown heavily on them for that?
However, despite the Speaker being in the room, the NEC statement read while the president and deputy president remain accountable to Parliament, they will now engage the people of South Africa “through various other platforms including direct contact with our people such as the recently relaunched Izimbizo forums”. While it is laudable that the ANC wants its leaders to have more direct contact with ordinary citizens – which is somewhat rare out of election season – it is rather bizarre that these are being proposed as alternate methods of accountability.
Unfortunately for the ANC, the Constitution does not provide for innovative alternatives to parliamentary accountability in the event of a rambunctious group being elected to serve as MPs. Zuma and Ramaphosa stand the risk of violating the Constitution should they chose to avoid accounting to Parliament – and perhaps one of the 80-member NEC should have known that this is grounds for impeachment. Surely some people in the room would have also realised that it would undermine democracy for the president to show up only to deliver the State of the Nation Address and attend the Budget, and avoid Parliament otherwise.
So why would the ANC take the risk of violating the Constitution and undermining South Africa’s parliamentary democracy by making such an announcement?
It is clear that the ANC is not reading the public mood accurately about the level of resentment about the costs of the upgrades at Zuma’s Nkandla home. They seem to think that more people would be angry about the EFF disrespecting Zuma than with those wanting him to pay for the undue benefits he and his family received. The ANC – or at least those in the NEC – would rather rally behind Zuma than consider the long-term damage this posture will have on the organisation.
The ANC would rather self-destruct in the mission to protect its leader than tell him to respond to the questions he is obliged to answer in Parliament. It is staggering that nobody in the senior most leadership structure of the ruling party proposed this as a possible solution to the ANC’s dilemma of how to contend with the EFF.
What we have now is a deliberately blinkered approach and a clumsy argument that the EFF’s attempt to hold Zuma to account is actually an attack on democracy. Asking hard questions of the president is hardly an assault on the state or an attempt to bring government to its knees.
So far, the only attack on democracy would be for the president and deputy president to snub Parliament and hold government-funded events to sell the “good story” to the nation.
If Olympus is falling, it is only because Olympus is refusing to accept responsibility for what has gone wrong under his leadership. If only one in a room of 80 of the ANC’s elected leaders had the courage to speak truth to power and say so. DM
Photo: Err, Zeus?
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine