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Manyi and ‘that Bill’: SA democracy will pass these tests too

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Do we treat our democracy as if it’s a slow child, just waiting to injure itself and we must, therefore, hover in the background, intervening at every movement? Yes, we do. I believe our democracy can withstand the Protection of Information Bill, and Jimmy Manyi and the resurgent nationalists in the ANC.

I don’t know about you, but I read stories about the Democratic Alliance’s “splendid victory” in the recent elections with a bit of dismay. Really, we’re breaking out the champers for the party that won 23% overall? Even if you compare the result to 2006 and 2001, the DA didn’t manage to hack away at the ANC’s domineering majority.

However, the DA was allowed to spin this in the media as a major victory for them and it did signify not a bias towards the DA (by the media), but rather a growing alarm at the ANC’s increasingly undemocratic ways. To many commentators it seems to boil down to the fact that the ANC rules the parliamentary roost and can pretty much do what it wants, and so the obvious tempering force to the ruling party’s largesse would be another powerful political party. Hence the fluffing of the DA’s feathers.

We’re going to see even more of this in the coming years, what with the Protection of Information Bill reappearing in Parliament like a really bad rash, Jimmy Manyi flexing his muscles at the GCIS and the upcoming 2012 ANC electoral conference; all that rot that will come bubbling up to the surface. It’s going to be a bit of a scary period for South Africa, and a lot of people are going to wish the DA was stronger so we could be protected from all of this as a country.

I don’t buy this theory.

For one thing, we have absolutely no guarantee that a two-party system would prevent blatantly unconstitutional bills from ever appearing before parliament.

And for another, South Africa’s democratic system wasn’t designed so that Parliament would be the only protector of democracy. We needn’t repeat the folly of granting the legislative seat too much power. We’re a country that relies on institutions of democracy to protect the citizenry against an aggressive and overbearing government. We’ve always had the reassurance of these offices and now it is time for them to stand the test of their worthiness.

At the moment, the most direct threat to the constitutional value of freedom of speech (and the implications this has when it invoked to curb government wrongdoing) is the government wanting to pass a terrifyingly imperious and harsh secrecy bill. Ever since the bill was officially put before Parliament last year, there has been constant pressure on the ANC to change the offending clauses in it. They seem to be relenting again like they did last year, but should they pass this bill, the citizenry must refer it to the Constitutional Court for a ruling on its constitutionality.

This is a process that has worked very well before. The ANC had no interest in legalising same sex marriage, yet it is very legal today, thanks to a declaration by the Constitutional Court in 2005. In November last year, the ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe admitted that if it were up to them, same sex marriage would never have passed into law.

There is also the issue of Jimmy Manyi planning to use government’s R1 billion advertising budget to reward those parts of the media which sing to his tune. This policy, while not unconstitutional in the bare-knuckle fashion of the secrecy bill, is deeply undemocratic and will be a worrying development should it become practice. There are challenges that can be raised against this policy, in terms of how it offends the basic idea of what news is and the public interest consideration it threatens by trying to dictate the news agenda.

Things aren’t that safe with our institutions of democracy, of course. There is a danger that these institutions could become compromised through deployment or direct interference.

One of the most crucial institutions, the public protector, was raided by the police earlier this year after it opened an investigation into national police commissioner General Bheki Cele, who allegedly leased new offices unlawfully. Though the raid was roundly condemned and the police launched an internal investigation into what they called an “unsanctioned operation”, the lease controversy and subsequent investigation which prompted the raid seemed to cause the Cabinet very little loss of sleep. So far, they’ve merely held meetings with the public protector to “discuss” the document.

The appointment of Menzi Simelane as national director of public prosecutions was rightly seen as a threat to the independence of the NPA. Simelane openly confessed to being a Zuma man and his appointment was seen as an attempt by the president to insulate himself from the legal troubles that dogged him prior to his election to the highest office. The battle between Zuma and his predecessor Thabo Mbeki probably did more damage to the independence and strength of the institutions of democracy than any other event.

But there are many success stories as well. The auditor general continues to play a crucial role in ensuring the government remains accountable and transparent. The Independent Complaints Directorate is also continuing in its unsung task of holding the police accountable to the public. This year alone the ICD launched investigations into the conduct of more than 20 police officers all across the country. According to the ICD, around 500 cases are recommended to the NPA for prosecution, and as many as 1,000 for internal disciplinary processes.

Then, of course, there’s the Constitutional Court.

I have faith in the South African democracy’s ability to survive the POIB and the ideas of Manyi – and whatever else the ruling party can throw our way. I also feel that for institutions to become stronger, they need to undergo these stress tests. Not only would their continued strength embolden the public, it would deter the plans of undemocratic politicians in the future. DM


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