South Africa (apparently) intends to break the Westminster system

mmusibelieve11871416618143538425242123914580nEarlier today, I tweeted that I didn’t agree with the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) strategy of no longer recognising the Speaker of Parliament. Besides wondering quite how this could be effected, I also suggested that gambits aimed at breaking the Parliamentary process hardly seemed appropriate for an already broken institution.

A friend on Twitter asked what I would suggest as an alternative to what the DA has chosen to do, and this is my answer to him. Well, an answer, and also some reflection on the situation in general.

I’m not going to rehash what happened in Parliament yesterday, and will instead point you to Rebecca Davis’ column, which does a fine job of highlighting what a unfortunate session of Parliament this was for anyone who holds out hope that our nation’s affairs are being governed by reasonable people.

So, in light of those events, Mmusi Maimane (DA Parliamentary Leader) released a statement that begins with:

Events in Parliament yesterday represent a turning point for our democracy and has fundamentally changed the DA’s approach to Parliament. Baleka Mbete lost control of the House and destroyed her credibility as the Speaker. Accordingly, we will cease to recognise her authority as Speaker.

Every time she presides over the House, the DA will only send its Chief Whip, Deputy Chief Whip and those members participating in debates.

By “fundamentally changed”, Maimane seems to mean that they intend to read the mandate that many South Africans have given them to represent them in Parliament, vote on bills, hold the Executive to account and so forth, as giving them licence to rather take their toys and go home.

Because instead of a potential 89 (the number of DA representatives in the National Assembly) (NA) voices, there will now only be the handful described in that last paragraph, quoted above, and the 22.2% of South Africans who voted for the DA might as well have “fundamentally changed” their attitudes towards elections also, and not bothered to vote.

Yes, I get that these are tactics of brinkmanship, where the DA might hope that the pared-down Parliament resulting from this move might provoke the ruling party into fearing a loss of perceived legitimacy in respect of the National Assembly. But if what you’re complaining about is a ruling party that you think above the law, and contemptuous of the opposition, how likely do you think a favourable result is?

More important, for me, are some matters of principle. One, as I’ve already noted, is that DA MPs have a job to do, and their Parliamentary Leader is telling them not to do that job.

Second, tactics like walk-outs (and this is basically an extended and generalised walk-out) need to be used sparingly. A walk-out is one of the strongest protest signals the opposition has, and one doesn’t want to use your strongest currency without exhausting all other options. Now, in this case – given that riot police were in Parliament, assaulting MPs and so forth, a walk-out might well be the appropriate action.

Except, they do it all the time – not just the DA, but other parties too. So, instead of provoking as significant a reaction as it should (“What? All the elected officials of party X, paid R1-Million a year to do job Y, have walked out of Parliament? Either there’s a crisis, or they need to explain themselves. Either way, I care.”), one instead thinks of the boy who cried wolf, and what rhetoric Maimane will need next time he wants to lead a walk-out. Which will probably be next week.

Walk-outs can be an abrogation of your responsibilities to the voters. They can also impair credibility, not only because credibility can be impaired inside the NA but also with the electorate, some of whom still associate the DA with negativity and obstructionism.

Credibility is also impaired through what looks like opportunistic application of one principle in one case, and very different principles in another. Compare and contrast Helen Zille defending yesterday’s filibustering tactics with this DA statement (from Dene Smuts) on Ambrosini’s filibustering in 2011:

But we can, and do, object to the fact that he is subjecting the South African Parliament to a political stunt. His actions demean the national legislative authority of the Republic of South Africa.

It’s different when we do it, I guess.

Third, some of our conventions only have moral force through common assent – they’re grounded in a sort of social contract, where they work because we all agree that they should work in a certain way, and are valuable because they often, in fact, do so.

Maimane is dead right that Mbete is a terrible Speaker, who has utterly failed to hide the fact that she’s defending the ruling party’s interests wherever and whenever she can. She’s a disgrace to the position, and needs to be gotten rid of. But, according to the rules, if she tells you to leave the NA, you need to leave the NA.

And when she told Michael Walters (deputy chief whip of the DA) to sit, and then to leave after he refused to sit, it’s the DA who break that social contract. The DA can’t claim a moral high-ground involving Mbete and the ANC provoking the violence of yesterday, without reflecting on the fact that there were various provocations along the way to that – and that some of them involved the DA, and specifically involved the DA ignoring the same set of conventions that they want Mbete censured for ignoring.

There are differences of degree, no question – as I say above, I’m addressing matters of principle alone, and making the point that it’s not only the ANC who is breaking the relevant social contract. If told to leave, you leave, and use the fact that you were capriciously ejected as ammunition for future battles, rather than running the risk of your refusal prompting an even less productive session for your colleagues, and the citizens you represent.

To conclude, and in part-answer to the question that prompted this column, what would I have suggested instead of what Maimane says in his statement? Well, I suspect that I would have written a far more strongly worded letter, which would have made it clear that the party no longer recognised her moral, rather than her literal, authority.

I would perhaps have embarrassed her with a list of all the ways in which she’s let the NA, and the country, down, and highlighted moments in which she destroyed her credibility – in short, the purpose of the press release would simply be to demonstrate that she’s demonstrably not fit for purpose.

It would have been just on that topic, not about Zuma not attending question and answer sessions, or Lindiwe Zulu attacking an opposition MP, so as to make it clear that as far as you were concerned, this Speaker is contemptible.

Then, I would have told my caucus to get back to work, including respecting the Office of the Speaker, and including obeying instructions that the Speaker gives. If the party thinks they contravene the agreed conventions (and laws), then the people not ejected can make that point, sometimes winning and sometimes losing.

But at least the majority of the MPs will be in the House, able to do some work. Seeing them do that work in a dignified fashion, working within the rules, while simultaneously observing a Speaker making rulings that are biased, arbitrary and perhaps vindictive, might well do more good for both Parliament, and the DA’s share of the vote.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.