Monday, June 04, 2007

On Warlords and democrats

When Graham Brady, the Conservative Party's Europe spokesperson, quit the front bench of the Party last week in protest at policies adopted by the Tory leader, David Cameron, I received an email that rhetorically asked: “Who are the MPs for Khutsong, and why have they not resigned yet?”

Of course, Mr Brady did not resign from the UK Parliament – merely from the front benches of Parliament. The MP’s for Khutsong would have had to resign as cabinet Minister or Chief Whip to have acted in a comparably manner than Mr. Brady.

Nevertheless, the implicit question remains: why do South African politicians never resign any position of power as a matter of principle. Why did no ANC cabinet ministers resign, for example, about the HIV/AIDS fiasco six years ago or when Jacob Zuma was fired or when South Africa decided to support Robert Mugabe?

There are several answers to this question. One is that our MP’s are so wedded to their political parties that they would never speak against their own – a bit of the Hansie Cronje syndrome.

A second reason is that MPs are not directly elected in constituencies and are therefore beholden to party bosses. If they resign in a fuss from cabinet, they will soon be kicked out of the National Assembly as well. Before they know it they will be redeployed as South Africa’s ambassador to Tjikitjikistan. In Britain, if you resign a cabinet post you go back to being an ordinary MP, but you retain some independence because the party cannot kick you out of Parliament – only your constituents can.

Having a constituency system also has other advantages. MPs who actually serve a constituency, must try and please their constituents and will therefore generally be far more responsive to the needs of the electorate than MPs selected by party bosses. Given this obvious advantage, one has to ask: Why is it that the ANC does not want to bring back some form of the constituency system?

The traditional argument is that the party bosses (i.e. Thabo Mbeki and Co) do not want to lose their power over the MPs. If one has a list system of proportional representation, the party and not the electorate decides who becomes MPs.

But recently some ANC people whispered into my ear that there is another reason for sticking to the list system. There is a real fear, according to my source, that independent constituency MPs will become a force onto themselves and would act like Warlords. This would then eventually destroy the ANC.

According to this view, all that holds the various factions of the ANC together and the only moderating force on the ANC is the Central Party structures. If one devolved matters to individual constituencies, demagogues and anti-democratic forces will take over. Without the instructions from head quarters, there would be no more gay rights and no more capitalism. And there would be far more renaming upheavals and other forms of populist politics. Think an ANC version of George Galloway!

These musings prompted another friend to ask: But what happens when the Warlords take over head office? My answer: we will have to wait until December to see!

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

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Steve said...

Fascinating topic.

I think there are many renegade ANC MPs but the ANC Mbeki-ites do not tolerate dissent.

When Lekota spoke out against Zimbabwe he was viciously attacked by the Mbeki-ites.

At the moment the MPs have no say. The Cabinet legislates and executes. Parliament merely rubber stamps Cabinet decisions.

The point as you say is, maybe its for the best. But that is short term thinking.

Pierre de Vos said...

Steve, I am also a bit torn on this topic. I instinctively think that at least some form of constituency MP system should be introduced for the National Assembly. Without real elected representatives it is difficult to see how MP's will really be responsive to the people. But if one looks at the way the members of the ANC argue and pull in different directions, one wonders whether it would be good for the ANC (and the moment also for South Africa) to have such a system in place.

Mal said...

I can't exactly recall the sequence of events when Andrew Feinstein left SCOPA and then Parliament. I seem to recall that the ANC dropped him from SCOPA, and he resigned from Parliament afterwards. So it can happen...

Your friends betray a worrying lack of confidence in the consequences of democracy for the ANC.

Pierre de Vos said...

I think the issue is not so much about consequences of democracy in the ANC, and more about the extreme difficulties of governing a country like South Africa with its bedeviled history and the vast discrepancies between rich and poor still mostly along racial lines. This is a situation ripe for demagoguery and Warlordism...

Thomas Blaser said...

Thanks for an open discussion of these important issues. I feel in our public discourses, these kinds of debates and reasoning is largely absent. Too often people censure themselves.

Michael Osborne said...

One problem with a constituency MP system: the official opposition, without the aggregating benefits of PR, would retain only a handful of seats in Parliament.

Pierre de Vos said...

Michael, I agree. That is why I support the Van Zyl Slabbert proposals which provided for a mixed system: multi member constituencies on the one hand AND a list from which minority parties could "top up" their MPs to ensure more or less exact proportional representation. A bit like the present local government electoral system.

Farrel said...

Didn't Pregs Govender also leave parliament because she became so disillusioned with it all?

Pierre de Vos said...

Quite a few Members of different parties have left Parliament because they were not happy. This is only partly to blame on the proportional representation system. Unlike in the USA, South Africa (following a strict version of the Westminster system) adhere to strict party discipline and the whips make sure back bench members vote the party line. For anyone with a conscience, this can be rather trying....

Anonymous said...

Is that why they call them 'whips'?
Yes, I agree, for anyone with a conscience it can be rather (or more than) trying to vote for something you don't believe in. Unfortunately, many current MP's are there just for the money ('Gravy Train'), and they don't care about their constituencies' wishes. I also agree that a mixed system as proposed by Van Zyl Slabbert would be a step in the right direction