On Chief Justice Mogoeng calling for prayer in Parliament

When the Judicial Service Commission hearings on Judge Mogoeng Mogoeng were being held, I expressed significant doubts regarding his suitability for the role of Chief Justice. Among my concerns were his views on homosexuality, his reasoning in certain judgments related to sexual assault, and of course, his religious views and whether they would impact on his rulings.

Continue reading “On Chief Justice Mogoeng calling for prayer in Parliament”

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.

Parliament – where dead sheep savage one another

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

tumblr_lt41l0pGYC1qdhgq4o1_500When insults are traded amongst groups of friends, we can get away with being more abusive than we would with strangers. If your name is Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde, your insults are perhaps easier to forgive because they’re funny, or because we must admire your wit, even as it makes us wince.

But if insults are a substitute for argument – if they are all we have to contribute – then we should rather consider the option of remaining silent, lest we make a fool of ourselves, while exposing all those who support our insults as fools themselves. We should consider the option of silence – or of diplomacy – even if the insult serves the short-term goal of a rhetorical victory.

There are many things that work towards achieving a desired goal, but at a cost. You could silence your child through administering a mild sedative, but don’t be surprised if you’re condemned for doing so. And even where some of our means toward a goal might not be illegal, the standard of the law is not the only relevant one. It’s society’s job to help regulate conduct more generally, and to generate the sort of society that we can enjoy living in.

This holds true for standards of conduct (for example, trying to avoid drowning out all other conversations in a restaurant with your excessively-loud banter) as well as the content of our speech. If we don’t demand sense, interpretive charity, and a certain amount of civility from each other, the absence of those things can increasingly become the norm.

To appropriate a passage from John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”, if society lets “any considerable number of its members” think that insult should succeed as well as argument, rendering them “incapable of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives, society has itself to blame for the consequences”.

So it is in Parliament, or perhaps in politics more broadly. When insults start coming in the form of excrement, as was recently the case in the Western Cape, we get a clear signal of one of two things: either that people are sufficiently disgusted by how they are being looked after that faeces are in fact most apposite to their anger, or that they don’t have the knowledge or arguments necessary to express that anger.

There are many permutations between those extremes, and the extremes are both crude. My point is merely to say that a form of protest that offends our sensibilities could (in a logically possible sense of “could”) nevertheless be appropriate, under the right circumstances. However, there are other circumstances in which it’s clear that offending our sensibilities is a simple substitute for having nothing useful to say, or not having the words to say anything useful.

Consider ANC MP John Jeffrey, who said of DA Parliamentary Leader Lindiwe Mazibuko last week: “While the honourable Mazibuko may be a person of substantial weight, her stature is questionable”. It’s not the possible sexism of this comment that’s the only notable thing. It’s also the fact that some people seem to think these insults the height of wit, judging from the television footage. Tell a fat joke and have MPs rolling in the aisles? I can’t imagine how they manage to keep breathing during a Leon Shuster movie, if that’s the level of humour that works on them.

I say “possible sexism” above because I don’t intend to make the case that it necessarily is sexism, although that does seem likely given the relative infrequency of comments regarding the girth of male MPs. Besides, the comment doesn’t need to be sexist to be ad hominem.

And yes, it’s true that members of the DA have levelled the same sort of abuse at ANC MPs. Helen Zille is reported to have commented to Zodwa Magwazao that there “is only one elephant in the room” (although this remark was, I think, ambiguous enough to be a problematic example for this column’s purposes) and Theuns Botha once likened the ANC’s Lynne Brown to a hippopotamus.

It’s also true that the same sort of thing happens in the UK Parliament, although my impression is that the calibre of the wit on display there typically exceeds that of the examples here. But even when it doesn’t, there remains a crucial difference between the House of Commons and the South African Parliament: a constituency-based system.

If an MP has nothing to offer but insult – or if their insults are insufficiently entertaining – voters can remove them from office at the next election. MPs are accountable to citizens, and not only to party leadership. Sometimes, accountability itself seems an impossible dream for us in South Africa, when the ANC Chief Whip’s response to Jeffrey’s remark is to excuse it as a pun, while simultaneously criticising Mazibuko’s fashion sense.

If I didn’t know better, I might call that victim-blaming. But it’s not – it’s simply a distraction and another ad hominem attack. And even though it’s true that Zille and Botha have been guilty of similar offences to Jeffrey’s, it remains possible to point this out in a way that nevertheless apologises – sincerely – for Jeffrey’s remark. A retort of “you too” (known to some as the logical fallacy tu quoque) is also evasion, and a juvenile one at that.

I’m not arguing that MPs shouldn’t be allowed to say the things they do, regardless of how juvenile their retorts might sometimes be. Robust debate must allow for offence, not only because we sometimes need reminding that our own standards of acceptable conduct aren’t sacrosanct, but also because without it, we’ll never get to know which MPs tend to believe and say offensive things.

Beyond the rules governing what is and is not appropriate language in Parliament, there’s also a market for what’s “unparliamentary” or not. Our market could be improved through a constituency system, but it nevertheless exists, and the Whips and other party leaders run it.

Ultimately, of course, the voters run it too. So if you want to appear to be a sexist windbag, you’re free to do so. And if your Chief Whip wants to inform us of your upcoming fauxpology while adding another insult, he should be free to do so – just as we’re free to punish your party at the ballot box if we so choose.

Having said that, I’d think it an over-reaction to punish a party for the conduct of individuals inside that party. I mention the possibility simply because the individuals in question sometimes don’t seem to care about substance rather than rhetoric, and could perhaps do with a reminder that we do care for substance.

The problem, in short, is that these rhetorical tricks and insults are the best that many of them have got – and I’d still like to believe that we deserve better.