South Africa

ANALYSIS

Ad Nauseam: As politicians run out of places to hide, expect more juvenile behaviour in Parliament

President Cyril Ramaphosa, left, and Julius Malema, right. (Photos: Lulama Zenzile / Foto24 / Gallo Images / Getty Images) | Gallo Images / Laird Forbes)

Events in Parliament this week, and the use of gender-violence accusations as a handy political weapon for men, have left many South Africans feeling disgusted or frustrated. Unfortunately, SA politics may well go in this direction for quite some time.

On Tuesday, Parliament once more devolved into a playground of insults and tantrums. ANC MP Boy Mamabolo, once very close to EFF leader Julius Malema, demanded that Malema answer whether or not he had hit his wife. 

Malema claimed that “I am in charge here… everyone else is following me” before referring to MPs as “fools”. He denied the claim made against him and stated that President Cyril Ramaphosa had hit his late ex-wife, Nomazizi Mtshotshisa. 

On Wednesday morning, South Africans vented their anger and frustration. Some called talk radio asking why they were paying for MPs to insult each other. Others said it was demeaning to the struggle against gender abuse for this issue to be used by men against each other. Voters for many different parties were united in their disappointment at the MPs they had elected.

There are a number of reasons why this has happened. These reasons suggest this kind of personal politics may be with us for some time.  

Perhaps the most important point to make is that the problems we face are serious and deep. Eskom, youth unemployment, climate crisis – none of these can be fixed easily or cheaply. They require trade-offs. Politicians are able to attain and retain a measure of political power by ensuring that their constituencies are not disadvantaged by the trade-offs. 

It is not in the interests of Malema to make a trade-off that would involve young people entering the workplace earning less than the minimum wage, as his voters could be in a worse position than they are now.

The same holds true for the DA. Its interim leader, John Steenhuisen, is facing a leadership election soon. It is in his political interest to use an occasion like the debate over the State of the Nation Address to appeal to his base. At the same time, appeals from DA MPs for Ramaphosa to act decisively and in “the interests of the country, not the interests of his party” may well have their own agenda. It suits the DA to have Ramaphosa weakened within the ANC because this increases their chances of getting more votes. 

Then there is the ANC. It appears there is no central authority controlling its MPs in Parliament. There is a sort of broad backing for the president, but some MPs gave the impression on Tuesday of being far more interested in attacking Malema. This may be a reflection of a lack of authority in the party as a whole, and the lack of an authoritative centre.

It is much easier to indulge in the politics of insult than to propose solutions to South Africa’s problems that could be accepted by other parties.

A similar process has unfolded in the US. There, the hyper-partisanship practisedGrootes by President Donald Trump has forced the Democrats into the same kind of behaviour. It appears nigh impossible for anyone to propose a solution to a problem that could be voted for by the other side. 

Here, because of the growing social distance between different sectors of our society, the representatives of those sectors may have no interest in saying or doing anything constructive.

Also, a number of our politicians are threatened by order and central authority. Those who face the possibility of criminal charges want to avoid accountability. To do this, it helps to give the impression that no institution can be trusted. This allows people to make claims without any evidence whatsoever (along with the domestic violence claim against Ramaphosa, Malema also suggested that the ANC was protecting FW de Klerk because they were impimpis and he had their informer files. He offered no evidence to support this).

This puts Ramaphosa in a difficult position.

As the very figure of central political authority, the country’s problems fall on his shoulders. If unemployment continues to rise, he will be blamed, if Eskom gets any worse (if that is even possible) he will carry the can. 

This aids his enemies, both inside his party and outside. 

They can use all SA’s problems against him, and work to ensure that Parliament is unable to solve any of those problems. The worse Parliament looks, the worse it is for him, and possibly the better for some of them.

However, Ramaphosa does still have some weapons in his armoury. He has the ability to appear dignified and authoritative while speaking from the lectern. It is possible that he could use his reply to the debate (scheduled for Thursday 20 February) to give the impression that he is the only person who actually wants to solve South Africa’s problems. 

This could strengthen his personal approval ratings, which in turn will give him more political power. 

It is unlikely that our MPs will change their behaviour any time soon. The only way to make them change is to institute some sort of cost for this behaviour. It would take an election for that to happen. Unless our society changes drastically in the near future, what occurred this week is likely to be repeated over and over. 

Ad nauseam. DM

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