Opinionista Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 3 April 2013

Are too many cooks spoiling the broth?

Civil society organisations have enjoyed great success when it comes to challenging government policy and decision-making. But, by all appearances, the opposition benches in Parliament are merely a place from which to lazily break wind and carp about abuse of power in the hope of spoiling the ruling party’s broth.

Let’s face it. The president is right: there are too many people trying to run South Africa. The president has decided finally to draw the line in the sand and say: this far and no further. When a dog farts in South Africa a commission of inquiry is called for. This is lazy. There are numerous ways in which the opposition can hold government accountable without pretending that it is in power. Frankly, civil society has been a lot more effective than our opposition parties combined in holding government accountable. To summon the president to Parliament has made little or no strides in a Parliament where the ruling party already outnumbers the opposition. Parliament in general has not covered itself with glory when it comes to effectively holding the ruling party to account. Even the most effective of committees – the standing committee on public accounts – has not managed to get government to really act on its lamentations or observations when it comes to public-sector corruption, for example. But when you look at the record of civil society an interesting picture of effective action on behalf of the people emerges. Does anyone remember the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and what it forced government to do regarding nevirapine? What it forced government to do on the issue of treatment through sheer determined activism?  Does anyone remember what Freedom Under Law achieved in the matter of former crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli? Does anyone remember what Section 27 did on the textbook saga? All of these stand out because the protest action of these civil society organisations was accompanied by legal action, as opposed to noise in a parliamentary debate. Love or loathe these NGOs, their action way outstrips what the parties do from the opposition benches. We tend to be presented with lazy noise and sheer breaking of wind instead of something that can impact on people day-to-day.

Very few opposition parties have thorough plans of how, when they have such sparse representation, to participate in more than 30 standing and adhoc committees in Parliament. This means they are unable to be a counterforce to the ANC which would, obviously, be good for our democracy. The Democratic Alliance, even at its most organised, has been unable to get government to change its mind on major issues without being seen as a kneejerk reactor to everything the ANC tries to do. It has only one choice – win at the polls and then run the country as it sees fit. In the only province it runs the DA does not allow any nonsense from the opposition ANC. It runs the place – whatever your views may be about how. It makes controversial decisions every day prompting the ANC to go into the streets and even to court, sometimes successfully, most times not. When the same brazen approach is implemented in other parts of the country the DA cries foul.  Sorry, this is how the cookie crumbles. Win elections and you govern. Mess up and the people vote you out and you have your turn on the sidelines; if you win it’s your turn at the steering wheel.

So indeed the president is right. Government sometimes is not even given the chance to breathe without being shouted at. We must be the most enquired-after society in the world! But there is another matter that arises: what is quite annoying is when the opposition can’t make the distinction between when to back up government as a nation and when to wash our dirties for everyone to laugh.  An annoying example was at the beginning of this year when the world gathered in Davos to listen to the South African delegation’s reasons for investing in South Africa. The leader of the opposition decided that this was the right time to write a downright rude open letter to our president venting about domestic squabbles that belonged in an election manifesto. The letter contradicted all of what business and government were pushing in Davos: That South Africa is open for business. You can’t tell me that the opposition thinks that we are closed for business because they don’t like the jockey? The horse must be killed. Surely the international media were not going to help us change the jockey? Surely this was a wrong audience in front of which to wash our dirty linen?

I am quite certain that there are many Americans who don’t like the war in Iraq and I am certain there is public debate in that country about whether the soldiers should be dying there. We are not unique in that regard and government is likely to ignore noises questioning its strategy because it is in the nature of those decisions that they can’t really be a subject of school debates nor parliamentary banter. Our government should have taken that view from the beginning and stuck with that line. Halfway through this conversation we are reminded that the obvious fact regarding military matters is that they are not up for chit-chat. 

But not everyone has all the answers. The opposition can do what civil society organisations have done: go to court and test the limits of the law of access to information. Let’s see if the result reveals that too many cooks are spoiling the broth. Or is this how the cookie must crumble in a democratic country? Me, I prefer one cook in my kitchen so I know who to blame when my chicken is too salty. Note: the cooking is not the end of the story. The people must still eat and believe me if it tastes bad they will grumble and vote with their feet. DM 

 Onkgopotse JJ Tabane is communications specialist and business man.


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