South Africa is one of the beacons of democracy in the African continent. The continent looks at the South African constitution as an example for better effective democratic governance and as a benchmark for citizen participation that is complimented by a responsive government.
The South African inspiration has lately been compounded by the robust nature of parliamentary debates – inspired by new opposition. The new opposition party – the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), through its charismatic leader Julius Malema has made parliament a spectacle to watch. This has been another addition to the democratic measure of South Africa. The open debate, the intense arguments, the hackling – are all a sign of a functional parliamentary institution in this democracy. This functionality is increasingly under scrutiny. Of course the robust debate in parliament is healthy, but does that make parliament more effective?
Parliament is the legislative arm of government, it a critical institution that fosters accountability while keeping check of the executive. Failure by parliament to exercise its duties effectively undermines democracy. Recently, parliament has failed to keep check of the executive, the Nkandla scandal, guptagate, state capture – all were just matters of debate in parliament. The legislature failed to be decisive on all these scandals that have marred the Zuma administration. The African National Congress (ANC) `s majority in parliament has been a stumbling block to the prosecution of the executive. There have been growing calls from opposition parties, some members of the ANC, civil society and the general public for the president to step down. The process to removing the president rests almost entirely on parliament. A body run by the ruling party.
The case of Nkandla is a classic example; the findings by the Constitutional Court that the president failed to uphold and protect the constitution put parliament in a precarious position. Understandably, opposition parties were fed up with what they perceived as a failure on the part of both Parliament and Speaker Baleka Mbete to hold President Jacob Zuma accountable for having violated his oath of office in relation to Nkandla. However the minority voice/s of opposition members in parliament merely contributes to a debate in parliament; real power in parliament lies in the majority. But how much real power does the ruling party really wield?
For the regular business of Parliament, the institution only needs a third of its MPs present, and to pass legislation it requires 50% of them to be there. The ANC could easily achieve both without the participation of the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the EFF. We’re talking 249 ANC seats in Parliament, to the DA’s 89 and the EFF’s 25. South Africans don’t choose the president, the president is chosen at the ANC congress. Once that happens no matter how unhappy citizens get, it is up to the ruling party to decide when to recall the president. Does this make South Africa a truly functional democracy? Does South Africa trust the ANC delegates at congress to choose the head of state?
Political Party Organisations
The overbearing role that ruling political parties play in South Africa’s democracy runs the risk of limiting the ability of citizens to participate effectively in decisions that impact on their lives. The leaders of governing parties wield enormous power and influence inside their respective parties and in the legislature and executive. The active participation of citizens in decisions that impact on their lives is a cornerstone of modern constitutional democracies.
In South Africa parliament has the legislative power; ddemocracies like this one are only as independent as the internal party processes! The recent frenzy to try remove President Jacob Zuma can only be settled by the ANC itself – unless we ask the Constitutional Court to overreach. Already the political party with the majority seems to overreach in parliament. The assumption that citizens are `rational` and will rationally vote irrespective of party loyalty has proven irrational. If citizens cannot guard their own democracy along rational lines, and if ruling parties are better at manipulating citizens; who then should protect our democracy?
The South African Constitution is one of the most democratic in Africa and the world. Without a responsive executive – the numbers in parliament make parliament a debate club, unable to perform some of its critical functions i.e. impeachment and vote of no confidence. Opposition runs to and from court to try get redress, fairness and justice. Courts are overburdened by the cases brought through a parliament run by the tyranny of the majority. Some sections in the media argue that the courts may be overreaching in some cases – although there might be a plausible argument there; it is hard for the court not to overreach when it has to decide cases for parliament every week. There must be a way to regulate abuse of parliament and executive privileges by the majority. Continuous protests against the incumbent, against service delivery, against undue influence by wealthy individuals on the executive may cause this culture of protests to turn into something far worse: anarchy by the mob or vigilante justice.