South Africa

Op-Ed: Parliament, democracy and the failure of collective leadership

By Lebo Keswa & Dumisani Hlophe 6 July 2015

The endless chaos in Parliament is symptomatic of a failure in responsible collective leadership, and is not limited to the ruling party, but extends to all parties represented in the National Assembly. Naked pursuit of political power at all costs, regardless of the outcomes, is the root cause of this failure. By LEBO KESWA & DUMISANI HLOPHE

President Nelson Mandela once remarked in Parliament that in all political parties, there are good men and women committed to the country’s development. Thus Parliament should allow them to collaborate and work together for the good of society.

The system of Parliament is meant to ensure there is collective leadership, accountability and responsibility for the common good of society. It is for this reason that certain laws – including laws that can change the Constitution – require a two-thirds majority. This is meant to maximise consensus across political parties. Therefore, Parliament is the institution that should most embody our collective consciousness on developmental matters. It is where progress, and in this case, failure, is determined.

We are aware that the legislature is the only platform that some in the opposition have to make their mark. They do not govern anywhere else. There is then a temptation to go overboard in demonstrating the failures of the ruling party. Equally, there is an inherent temptation by the ruling party to be overly defensive. Ultimately, neither the ruling party, nor the opposition, is seeing beyond the parliamentary walls. All they see is their immediate political opponent to be ‘dealt with’.

It is the case of the emptiest pots making the loudest noise while assuming they are fuller than the other pots.

The sum total of all this is irresponsible leadership. Parliament doesn’t seem to be conscious of the fact that no one benefits from a dysfunctional Parliament. If leadership fails so much in an assembly so august – if parties cannot bring themselves to look beyond party political interests in making an assembly of this nature function – can they be trusted to govern South Africa in the near future where they must be a government for all?

The ANC has failed dismally to reach out to the opposition to build bridges that can make Parliament function. Rather than strategically reaching out to the opposition, the ANC relies heavily on its own the deployee, Speaker Baleka Mbete, and on its substantive numbers. Hence, the Speaker is constantly under siege. Ultimately, both the opposition and the ANC are actually abusing the Speaker. Under siege as she is, she commits mistakes such that it is easy to forget that this is not the first time she has been the Speaker in the house.

The ANC has always elected the presiding speakers. But the bias has never been as blatantly obvious as it is in the handling of matters and the enthusiasm with which the president is being shielded from being answerable to Parliament. Ironically, the more the speaker seeks to protect the president, the more she actually disempowers herself and President Jacob Zuma.

Had the Speaker allowed the president to answer those not-so-difficult questions, much of the chaos could have been averted. Even if his answers were seen as being inadequate at least there would not have been accusations that the President is being shielded. The President has proved he can hold his own in many situations. If anything, shielding him has exposed him to less-than ideal situations, situations that show him as less of a statesman. Can you imagine Mandela simply continuing after the entire opposition has been thrown out of Parliament? Any leader with gravitas would not have allowed such a crisis to go to waste.

But then, none of the parliamentarians who scream the most in Parliament have shown any leadership. Even the quiet ones have not shown any sense of being statesmen/women. By remaining quiet, they inherently assume the collective guilt of irresponsible leadership. In fact, there are many smart people on the ANC benches. Their silence is indicative they are not thinking of the greater collective good. Most probably, they are thinking themselves.

Perhaps all political parties need a Codesa outside Parliament. They should probably meet and deliberate on their collective responsible leadership. They need to discuss the issues that as a collective leadership of the country, they are meant to be held in high regard. This should include how their particular conduct either enhances or weakens the strengths of South Africa’s democracy through Parliament. They need to deliberate their collective responsibility to account from whatever sectors they are at: from the president to everybody else. They need to deliberate on how collectively to maximise the public trust of Parliament as an institution of democratic transparency. They need to determine their own legacy in either consolidating democracy through Parliament, or destroying it.

The issue of collective responsible leadership cannot be sorted out in Parliament. The rules of Parliament in their current implementation and reverence, is not conducive to enhance its own democratic utility. Right now, Parliament is a battleground. Some would call it a circus. It has lost its integrity. Even the parliamentary channel ratings are high because the voting viewers expect antics and chaos during sittings. It is a case of being popular for wrong reasons.

A Codesa to rescue the integrity of Parliament would entail a gathering of other institutions beyond parliamentarians. Parliament is a national democratic institution. Therefore it requires that civil society in its various formations also takes part in this revival. Collective responsible leadership also determines that various sectors of society be concerned about the weak status of Parliament, and the quest to rebuild it.

In the meantime, we hope all parliamentarians, or at least some of them, will be born again – before Jesus comes back. DM

Photo: A general view of the National Assembly as South African President Jacob Zuma answers questions about his State Of The Nation Address (SONA) in parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 19 February 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

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