A debate on democracy at Constitution Hill heard that the African National Congress is to blame for the chaos in Parliament; that it's using the police as a private army, and is the most right-wing party in the country. The green, gold and black didn’t take part, but debaters saw positive signs in President Jacob Zuma’s recent admission that the party was in trouble. By GREG NICOLSON.
Two encouraging democratic advances have taken place recently. Firstly, President Jacob Zuma last week told the ANC Youth League the party is in trouble. And secondly, the rogue “intelligence” report on the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) is a positive development in South Africa’s democracy. Former Human Rights Commission chairman, Professor Barney Pityana, speaking at a Democracy Works debate, said Zuma’s comment was positive as it indicated recognition of the troubled state of the ANC. “The reason that he senses that is that he recognises an electoral threat.” On the Numsa report, Pityana said, “There is denial all over the place and Numsa have been saying regime change is maybe not such a bad thing. And indeed we do want regime change because that is what democracy is all about”.
Pityana was joined at the Democracy Works event, held on Thursday with support from Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, by former deputy director general of the Scorpions, Ruben Richards. There were a number of notable politicians in the audience.
“Political organisations and parties do not change on the basis that it’s nice to change. They do not change on some moral speculations of interest. They do change if they perceive some serious political threat to their chances,” said Pityana. The ANC recognises a threat, he added. “That, I think, is good for South Africa; I think it’s good for democracy.”
In the audience, former home affairs director general Mavuso Msimang said Pityana might be too hopeful. Zuma may not have known the media was in attendance at the Youth League event and many ANC members might share worries about the party but won’t express them, he said. Msimang was part of a group of ANC veterans, including Ben Turok, who recently suggested Zuma pay back the state some of the money spent on the upgrades at his private Nkandla home.
Pityana and Richards hammered the ANC for the mayhem in the fifth Parliament. “I get a chill down my spine when I see the Speaker sitting there and pointing fingers… The current speaker hasn’t got anything like the dignity of the House that she expects of others,” said Pityana. “Of course there is a reaction to that kind of leadership.”
Richards added, “We are living in a constitutional democracy and not a parliamentary democracy and that might help explain some of the arrogance or myopia of those in Parliament thinking they are beholden to themselves.”
Host of the conversation, William Gumede, tried to ask former Speaker Max Sisulu, sitting in the audience, about the recent parliamentary issues, including seeing the police in the National Assembly, but Sisulu declined to comment. “I’ll listen,” he said, in itself a symbol of the past.
Pityana and Richards said South Africa has a leadership vacuum. “The problem we have is not a problem of the Constitution. It’s a political problem,” said Pityana. “There’s a political maturity that we’ve lost somewhat, because we’ve always had a dominant political party.” Now, he suggested, leaders of institutions were appointed to serve narrow interests.
The debate also explored whether increasing state security is undermining democracy. “The police is not the private army of the ruling party. The police belongs to the people of South Africa,” said Richards. He added that there have been improvements in the SAPS but shifting from a militarised structure to a service and back to a militarised structure has made work difficult for the police, which like all South African institutions, faces challenges in reforming its culture.
Most of the conversation focused on the ANC’s role in democracy. Responding to a question on whether there’s too much focus on Zuma rather than his party or government, Pityana said leaders can build or destroy a democracy. “Leadership matters. It matters very much who your leader is because the leader sets the tone,” he said. “It is correct for South Africans to be obsessed with their leader, in this case the head of state. They have to be obsessed.”
Before closing Pityana painted a worrying future scenario – a return of ‘big man’ politics and ethnic divisions fuelled by patronage. “At the moment the African National Congress is probably the most right wing party we have in this country right now,” he said, adding that people are getting used to police killing civilians as the SAPS turns into a state militia.
His comments will have incensed the ANC, which regulalry cites its list of achievements to paint the country and itself in a positive light.
After Zuma told the Youth League that the ANC is in trouble, he also said members need to defend the party on social media and trumpet its successes. On Thursday, however, the only prominent ANC members at the discussion were those who have taken a stance against Zuma, once again tearing up his good story to tell. DM
Photo: William Gumede, Ruben Richards and Barney Pityana at the Democracy Works discussion. (Greg Nicolson)