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Laloo Chiba: Lessons about democracy for South Africans


Born in Johannesburg in 1941, Paul Trewhela worked in underground journalism with Ruth First and edited the underground journal of MK, ‘Freedom Fighter’, during the Rivonia Trial. He was a political prisoner in Pretoria and the Johannesburg Fort as a member of the Communist Party in 1964-1967, separating from the SACP while in prison. In exile in Britain, he was co-editor with the late Baruch Hirson of ‘Searchlight South Africa’, banned in South Africa.

Laloo Chiba’s passing at a time that the ANC will choose its next president this week should be a reminder to South Africans that they have the government – and the economy – that they deserve.

Laloo Chiba was the one of the most significant ANC MPs, who tried and failed to hold the Arms Deal of Thabo Mbeki’s government to account.

The Arms Deal was politically corrupt. It initiated the grand project of ANC corruption in government as a covert means of funding the ANC through its administrative control of public projects – in this case, the provision to the state of military equipment. Significant strands of personal corruption – such as by the late defence minister Joe Modise and also Jacob Zuma – were inextricably intertwined.

In this way, the regime of Thabo Mbeki initiated the pantomime of all-round looting of public funds for personal enrichment by his successor in corruption, Jacob Zuma, with his army of fellow corruptees.

In a vital study of this critical beginning of South Africa’s downward fiscal spiral, After the Party: A Personal and Political Journey inside the ANC (Jonathan Ball, 2007), Chiba’s colleague, the former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein, recalls how the subsequently jailed corruptee Tony Yengeni – then ANC Chief Whip – instructed ANC MPs on 29 January 2001: “Feinstein will no longer chair the Study Group. … The ANC, from the President downwards [ie, Mbeki], will now exercise political control over Scopa [the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, in which both Feinstein and Chiba had been active].

Feinstein continues: “From that moment the role of the Public Accounts Committee as a non-partisan arbiter on matters of financial management was over.” (p.194)

The door was thrown wide open by Mbeki’s government for Zuma, the Guptas and State Capture.

Feinstein makes it clear how this follows from the Soviet-type control of MPs which Mbeki’s colleagues had placed in South Africa’s supposedly democratic Constitution, which makes representative government impossible.

He notes how within “South Africa’s pure proportional representation system, rebellion against the party inevitably results in exclusion from Parliament, either immediately or most certainly at the next election”. (p.190)

As he wrote 10 years ago: “Certain changes of a constitutional and policy nature are desperately needed, including most importantly “the adoption of a mixed constituency/PR system, so that MPs are able to have an independent voice either as non-party constituent MPs or as representatives of a party directly elected by people from a specific geographical area, so that they are not beholden exclusively to their party leaders….

“Constituencies would provide the direct link between representatives and the voters in a particular location as well as diluting the the power of the party leadership to get rid of independent-minded MPs. This would create a political environment in which it would be more likely that MPs would be driven by principle and the needs of their constituents rather than the narrow loyalty required to remain in favour of the party leadership.” (pp.260-61)

Referring to the “autocratic, insulated and deaf-to-criticism-or-dissent style of leadership that has marked the Mbeki-era”, Feinstein noted further:

“To protect the party, the ANC leadership of both the executive and the  legislative arms of government was prepared to sacrifice the integrity and rigour of Parliament, a blow from which it has never fully recovered. The South African Parliament of today, elected by all the country’s people, is an empty vessel.” (p.240)

Instead of a political system in which the legislature holds the executive to account, South Africans have chosen to be governed by a system in which the executive holds the legislature to account.

This is what crippled Feinstein and Chiba. With Parliament as an empty vessel, it is little more democratic than the apartheid regime it replaced.

Seventeen years after the ANC’s neutering of Feinstein and Chiba as democratic and constitutional MPs, repeated this year with its exclusion of Makhosi Khoza as MP, Chiba’s passing on the eve of the ANC’s choosing of its next president this week should be a reminder to South Africans that they have the government – and the economy – they deserve.

South Africa’s political problem is constitutional and systemic, it is not personal.

If this is not addressed, things will remain the same.

The way to remember Laloo Chiba is through discussion and debate of this fundamental problem. DM


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