South Africa’s opposition parties have been busy of late. Busy looking for Jacob Zuma.
They’ve looked high, and low, and tried every trick in the book to seek him out.
Opposition politicians want Zuma to appear in parliament so they can ask him questions about alleged gross over expenditure at his private home in Nkandla.
In the last few weeks, opposition parties have filibustered ferociously, debated until riot police were called into the main chamber and even caused so much chaos that the awesome force of A CYRIL RAMAPHOSA NEGOTIATION was introduced into the game.
But all to no avail. The president has still not appeared in parliament. By all accounts, he is not likely to do so any time soon.
Let’s listen to the ANC’s top dogs:
ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe this week dismissed any chance that the party’s leadership were willing to play nice: ‘The actions of some opposition parties undermine democracy and the Constitution. The ANC therefore understands the responsibility it has to defend democracy…’
(Almost) Incredibly, Speaker of the National Assembly (and ANC Chairperson) Baleke Mbete yesterday said this: ‘If I knew he was around I would say maybe it would be easy to persuade him [to attend].’
Now, one could argue that opposition parties need to move past their obsession with the president.
After all, the business of government is a broad and complicated affair, and parliamentarians’ responsibilities are to represent the needs of their electorate, to introduce new laws, and to hold the broad panoply of government to account. Of course the president’s absence for so long is an insult South African voters, but his appearance in parliament alone will not solve the multifarious social, economic and political challenges the country.
On the other hand, the office of the South African presidency is subject to the constitution, and the president himself was chosen by the parliament. And – AHA! – he can be removed by parliament. Article 83.A.1 of the constitution says:
‘The National Assembly, by a resolution adopted with a supporting vote of at least two thirds of its members, may remove the President from office only on the grounds of…a serious violation of the Constitution or the law.’
But here is the important point. Parties should recall that Jacob Zuma hasn’t just been absent from parliament.
With the infrequent punctuation of a few low-key public appearances, Zuma has been noticibly absent from public life in South Africa since the May 2014 elections. Despite having made the odd public speech, including one to launch the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence two days ago, he has mainly left the heavy lifting of leadership to his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa.
And that is a disgrace in a country where most of the electorate are searching on a daily basis for any means to feed their families, find a job and avoid violent crime.
In their tunnel vision obsession to have Zuma ‘account’ before parliament, opposition parties have missed this crucial point. They themselves are guilty of not recognising that, in any democracy, feedback is necessary; in fact interaction with the electorate is paramout for success and stability.
Instead, they should be focusing more broadly on the ANC’s disconnection with citizens.
Of course, in order to do that, opposition parties also need to reflect on their own shortcomings. That may be an uncomfortable process, but it will enable them to address the real issue plaguing South African governance: the vast and growing distance between voters and leaders.
Unless leaders report regularly on what they are up to, and unless citizens that voted them into power feel like they have some way to get hold of them, democracy breaks down. In such circumstances, voters retreat into apathy and dillusion, while leaders attain a false sense of elevation from the people.
How many of those MPs bleating in parliament right now have bothered to ask their constituents how worried they are that Jacob Zuma hasn’t boarded a plane to Cape Town? None? (if any of you have please tweet me @gilbertcathal).
This reflects the fact that all parties (and I include the fledgling EFF in this) are guilty of forgetting about their constituencies as soon as the Independent Electoral Commission announced the results on their big screen.
But isn’t this inevitable, in the absence of a constituency-based system for national and provincial elections? Well, yes, the Van Zyl-Slabbert recommendations on a new electoral system should have been adopted but, even then, and even under a flawed proportional representation system, the quality of democratic representation should be better than this.
The crux of the recent disturbances in parliament is this:
The conditions that caused this parliamentary crisis are not going to change without a citizenry that is educated and well-fed enough to:
1. Know that the actions of Zuma are abhorrent and unconstitutional, and
2. That, they, the people, can do a hell of a lot about it (peacefully of course).
This is the single most important issue that opposition MPs – in tandem with civil society organizations, community groups and voters – should use their time in parliament and in their constituencies to tackle.
In doing so, there is no doubt that opposition parties should continue with their campaign to call the president to ‘account’, and we are surely in store for many more dramatic chapters in the thriller that has become this parliament.
Meaning more pressure on the president.
But who knows? Maybe Zuma will be tempted to steal a march on the opposition and write his own dramatic ending by envoking article 51.2 of the constitution:
‘The President may summon the National Assembly to an extraordinary sitting at any time to conduct special business.’