Dramatic scenes in South Africa’s parliament during Zuma’s 2015 State of the Nation Address

Nobody expected Jacob Zuma’s 2015 State of the Nation Address (SONA) to be a humdrum affair. But the reality – punctuated by mobile phone jamming, wresting matches and a mass walkout – was more bizarre than most could have imagined.

The drama began even before president Zuma, Speaker of the National Assembly Baleke Mbete and Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces Thandi Modise entered the chamber. As Zuma approached the parliament building in a large white van, SABC’s coverage briefly cut to the chamber where journalists and opposition MPs held mobile phones in the air and chanted ‘bring back the signal’.

News emerging from those close to the parliament precinct revealed that a mobile phone signal jamming device had been spotted:

Even before Mbete could introduce the president, three members of parliament from the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) raised points of order. They said the jamming of mobile phones in the chamber of parliament was a violation of the constitutional right to impart ideas and receive information. Mbete was unperturbed and calmly responded that she would ask the parliamentary secretary to ‘look into the matter’.

DA MPs were not to be denied. They refused to proceed as long as the jamming device was still working. The house was briefly adjourned amid a flurry of activity.

Shortly afterwards precious mobile phone connectivity flooded back into the smartphones of elected representatives and journalists. Despite a question from the DA, Mbete was not able to elaborate on who or what had installed the jamming device. City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, in attendance during SONA, tweeted:

Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook duly restored (aside: given tonights events mesh networks like Firechat might gain popularity in South Africa), Mbete invited his honour the president of South Africa, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, to deliver SONA 2015.

Zuma, complete with red tie, dark blue suit and relaxed demeanour, proceeded to lumber through formal introductions.

And then. The moment most South Africans had been waiting for arrived.

One after the other, opposition Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) MPs took to their feet and raised points of privilege in accordance with rule 13 (c) of the rules of parliament.

All of them asked more or less the same question: When is Zuma going to pay back taxpayers money they claim he used to build his private home at Nkandla?

Mbete insisted that SONA was not supposed to be a question and answer session, merely to listen to the president’s speech. Her patience lasted until EFF leader Julius Malema and deputy leader Floyd Shivambu added their voices to the growing clamour for the president to answer the question.

Finally, Mbete had enough and ordered the sergeant at arms to ‘assist’ Malema to leave the house.

What happened next was not broadcast on television; although a violent interaction was clearly audible, the parliamentary feed showed only a close up of Mbete and Modise’s embattled visages.

Amateur mobile phone footage taken from the gallery however captured a horrific five-minute battle between security personnel (it has since been confirmed that they included SAPS officers) and EFF MPs. Fist fights, wrestling matches and forceful removal are clearly visible in the video. Although no coverage was reported on state broadcaster SABC, local news channel ‘E’ repeated the amateur footage as an insert during Zuma’s delivery.

At one point either Mbete or Modise is heard to say ‘The members of the security forces must come in terms of the powers and privileges act.’

Other footage has since emerged.

Malema subsequently claimed that his MPs were injured during the forced removal.

After the forced removal, DA MPs got to their feet again to ask Mbete and Modise whether they had ordered police officers onto the floor, thereby breaching the separation of powers and fundamental constitutional rights to assembly and expression.

Modise – having taken charge at this stage in place of Mbete – attempted to respond, but not to the satisfaction of DA MPs, who staged a mass walkout of their representatives, clad head to toe in black in protest at the current state of the nation.

With only his African National Congress (ANC) MPs and representatives of minority parties remaining, Zuma resumed his speech in good humour, allowing himself a laugh at the outset, and several times during his delivery.

His speech contained some interesting moments – including a confirmation that ‘foreign nationals’ will not be allowed to own land in South Africa – but it will be largely overshadowed by the dramatic events that preceded it.

Posted in Accountability, Constitutionalism, Democracy, Governance, Human Rights, Mediation, Nonviolent Action, Nonviolent Mobilisation, Parliament, Political Parties, Representation, Techology and democracy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lesotho: elections and uncertaintly

With elections just over two weeks away, Lesotho’s politicians jostle for position, tensions increase and South Africa’s mediation intensifies.

At just over 2 million people, Lesotho’s population is one twenty-fifth the size of South Africa’s. Lesotho’s GDP of $2.3 billion represents 0.66% of it’s neighbour’s $350 billion.

Despite this lack of girth and economic punch, in the past six months Lesotho (or more precisely, its politicians) have constituted a disproportionately large headache for South Africa.

When divisions within the ruling coalition reached crisis point last year, the army entered the streets of Maseru on in an attempt to unseat prime minister Tom Thabane.

Thabane, who has led a three party coalition since his election in 2012, fled to safety in South Africa, while one police officer was shot dead and radio broadcasts were briefly suspended.

Thabane asked for help and received it in the form of SADC mediation spearheaded by South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa. Thabane was also granted physical protection from a unit of the South African Police Service (SAPS).

Earlier attempts at SADC mediation had failed because of a string of broken promises. Renowned for his negotiating nous, Ramaphosa finally managed to get all parties to agree Thabane would remain on as prime minister while parliament would be opened briefly so that early elections could be called in February 2015.

Since then, Lesotho has existed in tense political limbo. So far, and through intensive diplomatic efforts during over ten visits to Lesotho, Ramaphosa has managed to hold warring factions together.

Lately, however, the agreement has been fraying at the edges, and two of the three coalition parties now seem unhappy with the way Ramaphosa has approached his work.

In a report delivered at the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa in late January, the Lesotho government (or at least the ABC and BNP faction of the coalition) criticised Ramaphosa’s mediation, claiming he has not acted impartially.

The report accuses Ramaphosa of allowing Lt. Gen Kamoli (the army officer allied to the DC that most hold responsible for leading the coup attempt) to remain in SA and thus still be in close contact with Lesotho’s army generals. Meanwhile, two other officers allied to Thabane – Police Commissioner Tšooana and Lt. Gen Mahao – have been banished further afield, to Algeria and South Sudan respectively.

The report also alleges that Ramaphosa did nothing to force communications minister Seliber Mochoroboane to vacate his post after Thabane fired him for corruption in October 2014. Mothetjoa Metsing, deputy prime minister and leader of the LCD party had rejected Thabane’s decision to fire Mochoroboane, leading to weeks of acrimonious allegations and court battles.

The LCD has distanced itself from the government’s report to the AU and seems more inclined to agree with Ramaphosa’s style of mediation. This situation has led some to speculate that the South African government might prefer a return to power of former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili, with whom Metsing governed before the LCD and DC split prior to the 2012 elections.

Earlier this week, the three coalition leaders met with South African president Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa and other government ministers. The statement released following the meeting confirmed ‘the climate for the holding of elections on 28 February remains on course.’ The meeting was called against a backdrop of heightened security fears after the arrest of four Basotho soldiers who allegedly attempted to murder two of Thabane’s bodyguards on South African soil. 

According to the statement, Zuma has urged his deputy to return to Lesotho as soon as possible to help deal with security and political issues still threatening to derail plans for the February 28th polls.

It is clear that despite Lesotho’s small political and economic weight in the region South Africa has a strong interest in the return of political stability there.

First, and most importantly, South Africa – Gauteng in particular – depends heavily on stable water supplies from Lesotho. As load shedding becomes a daily reality for the majority of South Africans, the last thing that Zuma and Ramaphosa need is a water crisis (although according to a recent Mail & Guardian expose, that water crisis may be coming anyway).

Second, South Africa encircles Lesotho, meaning that any violent conflict or deteriorating humanitarian situation would automatically impact upon it economically and politically. With more than enough unemployment and poverty of its own, South Africa will be loathe to incur further costs to pay for a troop deployment in Lesotho (as in 1998) or to receive a larger flow of economic migrants.

It is no surprise then that Ramaphosa appears determined to succeed.

However he and SADC have been criticised for assuming that fresh elections alone will untangle the political mess in Lesotho. Critics assert that political instability in Lesotho is likely to persist beyond the elections and that fundamental constitutional questions remain unaddressed.

Either way, elections are likely to go ahead on 28th February and a new Mosisili-Metsing government could be the likely outcome. Tensions are high and sources within the country say that the politically partisan media (particularly radio stations) are not helping. While widespread violence is unlikely, other outcomes – disputed elections, sporadic violence targeting rallies or a protracted political standoff – are very real possibilities.

Even if elections are peaceful, free and fair, Ramaphosa and SADC are likely to have more work to do to make sure that Lesotho becomes politically stable in the medium to long term.

Posted in Civil Society, Conflict Prevention, Democracy, elections, Mediation, Parliament, Peace, Peaceful Transfers of Power, Policing, Regional Bodies | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Zambians hope for peaceful elections today; as protests hit the DRC

Zambia’s former President Michael Sata died before he could even complete one term, prompting today’s by election; in the DRC, Joseph Kabila is attempting to cling on to power beyond 2016, a move that has sparked street protests.

It is estimated that over five million Zambians are eligible and registered to vote in today’s presidential by election that has become a dog fight between Edgar Lungu, the incumbent Minister of Defence (and Justice) and self-made millionaire rancher Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND).

Both are in their fifties, making them relative novices in southern Africa’s political arena. Neither have a vast amount of government experience, and in fact HH (as Hichelema is popularly known) has none at all. But he is seen by some as the frontrunner, if only by the slightest of margins. Following an exhausting campaign that began immediately after Sata’s burial in early November, HH has travelled to all provinces, slamming his opponents in rally after rally and cajoling Zambians to ‘join team HH’ in a slick social media campaign.

Meanwhile, his two main rival parties – the incumbent Patriotic Front (PF) and the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) – dithered. Neither could agree on who their candidate should be and at times, factions in both parties came out to declare their man the candidate. The chaos was eventually sorted out by the courts but by then HH had covered significant ground.

In a bid to catch up, Lungu visited Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and also travelled to Angola and Nigeria to drum up support for his campaign. He hit the ground running upon his return and ever since has been slugging it out with HH through the Zambian media.

Both men are towing a populist line, while firing a barrage of personal insults at each other. Both romise to grow the economy, while reducing poverty and creating more jobs. Within hours of each other, both parties also released their roadmaps for enactment of a new constitution – something that has (unusually for a country with high poverty levels where bread-and-butter issues normally rule the day) become an election issue for the majority of voters.

Neither party can be overly confident of victory and the result could come down to the level of turnout. If elections are won on momentum however, having built up a head of steam over the past two months, HH and the UPND could be set to win by a narrow margin and become the third party to rule Zambia since the return of multi-party democracy in 1991.

A plea this morning by the acting president, Dr. Guy Scott, for the loser to accept defeat, could be interpreted as a signal to his cabinet colleague Edgar Lungu that, at least as far as he is concerned, the writing is on the wall for the PF.

All watching this election, and particularly all Zambians, hope that sporadic inter-party violence during the campaign will not spill over into polling day or post-election day violence. Let us hope that, whatever happens, peace prevails in Zambia in the next few days.

Let us hope the same for Zambia’s northern neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The DRC’s current president, Joseph Kabila (son of Laurent) seems intent on extending his stay in power. His second term as president should end following elections scheduled for 2016.

Having earlier hinted at running for a third term, he now seems intent on extending his second term by amending the electoral law to make the conduct of a census mandatory before the next elections. In a country as large as the DRC, with a large population and poor infrastructure, a census is not something that can be accomplished quickly.

So most predict that this amendment would have the effect of delaying the next elections by quite some time, thereby extending his stay in power significantly. This will make many DRC watchers – and particularly those with a vested interest in central African stability – nervous.

It has also infuriated people in Kinshasa and Goma, where street protests have broken out in recent days. Following the adoption of the amendment by the lower house of parliament, demonstrations on Monday 19th January turned violent when police used tear gas on protestors and allegedly fired on crowds in some areas with live ammunition. Photos of burning streets and brutalised protestors are circulating on Facebook and Twitter.

The protests have largely been led by students and young people, fed up with their leader’s thirst for power. Kabila could learn something by watching the outcome of today’s elections in Zambia. Peaceful transfers of power have become the norm there, and politicians now routinely accept the outcome of generally free and fair elections. This means a lot for stability, and builds confidence in the democratic process. Kabila’s manoevres on the other hand deal democracy a retrograde blow and can only be bad news for the DRC in the long term.

Posted in Democracy, Peace, Peaceful Transfers of Power, Protest, Zambia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What do the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown tell us about democracy in the US?

Protestors in New York on December 3rd following the Staten Island grand jury's decision not to indict the NYPD officer who put Eric Garner in a chokehold

Protestors in New York on December 3rd following the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict the NYPD officer who put Eric Garner in a chokehold

The official motto of the town of Ferguson is ‘Proud past. Promising Future.’ That vision lies in ruins today amid unprecedented public protests sparked by the strangulation of Eric Garner and the shooting of Michael Brown.

These killings have led to palpable rage about the discriminatory treatment of black people by the police in the United States. There is no question that the events themselves, as well as the multifarious reactions to them, have much to do with serious race and power imbalances in the US.

But these events can also teach us a lot about the health of democracy in the United States.

Diagnosing the health of any country’s democracy is rightly the domain of professionals and academics carrying out long-term analysis and employing batteries of time-worn indicators. Nevertheless, isolated incidents – like the gaping wound bleeding in America right now – can also remind us of things that indexes and long-term analyses may miss.

On the 17th of July, the killing of Eric Garner on a Staten Island street was captured at close range on a video taken by a bystander. The disturbing scenes show police officers wrestling Garner to the ground in an attempt to arrest him, one of them putting him in a chokehold and later kneeling on the side of his head. Garner can be heard repeating the words ‘I can’t breathe’ multiple times as officers continue to force him onto the ground. Garner died an hour later in hospital.

On the 9th of August, Michael Brown was shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson. He was walking on a street in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis Missouri a few minutes after shoplifting a carton of cigarillos. After a struggle, Brown was shot at least six times at close range, twice in the head.

In both of these incidents the deceased were black, the perpetrators white.

On the 24th of November, it was announced that the grand jury had decided that Darren Wilson should not be prosecuted for the death of Michael Brown. Nine days later, a grand jury in New York came to the same conclusion in Eric Garner’s case.

Angry protests, some of them destructive but most peaceful, erupted across the United States. Racial tensions fuelled mass action and protests not seen since the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991.

As it should, the public debate centres around race. The main grievances are unfair treatment of black people by the police and a broken justice system that protects the police perpetrators and devalues the lives of poor black victims.

But the debate could also be about democracy. A fully functioning democracy should prioritise the emancipation of all of its citizens from poverty, exclusion and ignorance. It should set as its core purpose the creation of a social arena in which citizens can thrive, in which the weak are protected and, crucially, in which human rights – of all stripes – form the boundaries of what a state can and cannot do. Where state agents overstep the mark, there are oversight mechanisms, consequences for perpetrators and justice for victims.

The killings of Brown and Garner, and the hundreds of thousands of stories of discrimination subsequently shared on social media (see hashtags #crimingwhilewhite, #blacklivesmatter and #icantbreath) reveal a police and prosecution system that is deeply flawed and discriminatory. While race is the lens through which this is now being viewed, that flaw says much more about a fundamental failure of USA’s democracy – the failure to protect the right to equality.

It also points to a much broader and deeper chasm within USA’s democracy. Across all spheres of economic, social and political life, there is a great and widening gap between those who own, control and influence; and those who beg, borrow and steal for a slice of the American Dream. The scale and breadth of the protests happening right now are evidence that US citizens – of all races – are feeling increasingly angry about this.

But the protests also reveal another side to US democracy. Basic civic freedoms – although clearly violated in these two police killings – are generally alive and well in the United States. Protests across the land have largely proceeded peacefully and an online petition forced the President to announce $75 million for police body cameras.

The freedom to assembly and express views openly should not be taken for granted. Peaceful protest and creative nonviolent mobilisation can be extremely powerful tools in a democracy. Gene Sharp, one of the fathers of nonviolent mobilisation theory illustrates how citizens, acting peacefully, can do much more than speak up:

“Nonviolent action is a means of combat, as is war. It involves the matching of forces and the waging of ‘battle,’ requires wise strategy and tactics and demands of its ‘soldiers’ courage, discipline and sacrifice. This view of nonviolent action as a technique of active combat is diametrically opposed to the popular assumption that, at its strongest, nonviolent action relies on rational persuasion of the opponent, and more commonly it consists simply of passive submission.   Nonviolent action is just what it says: action which is nonviolent, not inaction.’

Sharp’s teachings have broad application in a situation where certain elements of a democracy, such as equality and accountability, are clearly dysfunctional, but others, such as civil liberties, remain largely intact. In such circumstances, nonviolent action can have a great effect. For the United States, the protests following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner could present an opportunity to begin to address some of the country’s underlying democratic deficits.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 he declared that he would change the way that Washington does business. He hasn’t. It is clear however that his successor in 2016 will have to take account of the growing discontent within large sections of society.

If current nonviolent action is sustained and organised over a period of years, that new president may be left with no choice but to bring about changes promised by so many before.

Posted in Accountability, Democracy, Equality, Nonviolent Action, Nonviolent Mobilisation, Policing, Race Relations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Message to South Africa’s opposition: forget about Zuma, remember your voters


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.’

Posted in Accountability, Civil Society, Constitutionalism, Corruption, Democracy, Governance, Parliament, Political Parties, Representation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Southern Africa: haven for dominant party states

Southern Africa provides fertile ground for dominant political parties, many of whom have been around for longer than most of their citizens have been alive.

The ANC in South Africa has enjoyed an unbroken 20 year spell in power since the end of Apartheid in 1994. But the ANC doesn’t win the prize for ruling the roost in this region. In fact, the ANC is the baby of the group.

In Namibia, SWAPO have ruled comfortably for 24 years. Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF have been in power in Zimbabwe for 34 years. Angola’s MPLA and Mozambique’s FRELIMO have both held power for a cool 39 years. In Botswana, the BDP have ruled the country for a whopping 49 years. Doing the maths, one finds that dominant parties in these six states have been in power for a collective total of 205 years.

One might wonder what has happened in these countries that have, to widely varying degrees, allowed for opposition political parties to operate and in some cases to challenge for political power. Civil society groups and the media also provide some space for public expression and elections occur with regularity. Yet the dominant parties remain dominant.

In 2014, elections took place in three of these six countries – South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana – with Namibians heading to the polls later this month. So far, there have been no surprises with the ANC, FRELIMO and the BDP continuing to rule. And, barring a miracle, SWAPO is also in line for another comfortable victory in Namibia.

In this context, should we conclude that elections are meaningless exercises and that the institutions of democracy that exist are merely window dressing? Should we say that they have been designed merely to legitimise parties that have become entrenched in power and that have the access to resources needed to maintain patronage networks and silence their enemies?

Or is there more to it than that?

A surface analysis of the results of the 2014 elections reveals that in all three countries, the share of the vote won by the ruling parties is declining. The ANC’s vote fell from 67% in 2009 to 62% in 2014. FRELIMO only won 144 seats in parliament, almost a 25% decrease from the last election. The BDP won 37 seats in parliament, an 18% decline.

Should this trend continue, the logical conclusion is that power will shift to another party. This could happen in 5, 10 or 15 years, depending on which scenario planner you listen to. That means that elections are becoming more meaningful. Should it come to pass, those changes will have significant consequences for the region and they will mark an important evolution in southern Africa’s democratic development.

Certainly, election time is an important opportunity to question politicians and policies, even if those politicians know they will be reelected with a comfortable margin. It is a time to mobilise normally apathetic citizens, to educate the public and to build campaigns for change.

Elections alone however cannot solve the problem. If the energy and momentum demonstrated during election campaigns could be maintained after elections, dominant parties would face a much tougher test. Unless citizens become more active and interested between elections in focusing on strengthening accountability, the progress towards a more level playing field will slow, and that day may not arrive for many years.

Of course, citizens do demonstrate in between elections, although typically around single issues. For instance in South Africa, there has been a wide-ranging public campaign to oppose E-tolls that has forced the ANC government in Gauteng to consider its options.

Those moments of active citizenship are very valuable demonstrations of the power of positive interaction with governments. However for democracy to develop and deepen, those moments must become more frequent and widespread; and the activism should focus on improving the quality of representation and the system of governance itself.

Civil society, political parties, the media, even schools all have a vital role to play in making this happen.

Until that day arrives, dominant parties in Southern Africa are likely to thrive in fertile conditions.

Posted in Civil Society, Democracy, Political Parties | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

King Cobra has lashed out for the last time – the rise and fall of Michael Sata


When I first started following Zambian politics, Michael Sata – who died on October 28 in London – was already a seasoned political operator, having served in senior government positions since Kenneth Kaunda’s one party state in the 1980s.

By 2009 he had become the chief thorn in the side of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). For years, Sata and his allies in the press and civil society had been mounting an offensive so effective that it eventually won him the 2011 election.

One might argue that toppling a government that has been in power for two decades is not currency for bragging rights. Surely, after 20 years the public would be fed up of the same old faces and policies by then and would gladly vote for an alterative?

True, this is how it happens in established democracies but in most emerging democracies the electoral playing field is often heavily skewed in favour of the party in power who blatantly use state machinery and resources to blanket the airwaves and buy votes.

So Sata’s achievement in 2011 should not be underestimated.

A product of the system himself, Sata was wise to the tricks employed by the government during election time. Fully aware that the MMD would try to bribe voters with sacks of grain and handouts, he urged his supporters to take the gifts but to still vote for his party, the Patriotic Front (PF). ‘Donchi Kubeba’ (or ‘Don’t tell them’) became the viral slogan and musical accompaniment to Sata’s election as president in 2011.

He ran an energetic campaign of undisguised populism that tapped into the frustration and hopes of millions of (mostly young) Zambians who had no jobs, money or opportunities.

Sata spoke at length and in revolutionary prose about how he would create millions of jobs, raise the minimum wage, increase Zambia’s share of mining revenue; all the while putting manners on Chinese and other foreign investors.

In his first year and a half in office Sata achieved some progress. He kept his promise of raising the minimum wage and he did bully some foreign mining bosses into reversing plans for reducing employee numbers.

Overall however he achieved little economic success even though he presided over three years of healthy economic growth. Despite government claims to the contrary, few new jobs seem to have been created and young Zambians that had voted for Sata started to become quickly disillusioned at his many unfulfilled promises.

Perhaps most disappointing however were Sata’s several u-turns on key governance reforms coupled with a ruthless approach to silencing his critics in the media and civil society. In truth, these attacks should have come as no surprise given Sata’s track record within the PF – which was created solely for his advancement. The PF never held a single democratic election for party leadership.

Despite his disappointing three years in power, Sata may be best remembered for his fiery and at times outlandish public speaking. This earned him many admirers and the moniker ‘King Cobra’ in honour of his venomous attacks on opponents.

But Sata was also quite quirky and humourous.

For instance, he had an aversion to bald heads he repeatedly made fun of important people who chose to shave their heads. Even Jacob Zuma didn’t escape ridicule as reported in January this year by journalist Idriss Ali Nassah who was covering events at an African Union Summit:

‘“Michael Sata just had to do this: Walks up to Jacob Zuma, playfully slaps him on the head and asks, “Why do you shave like that,” Nassah reported.’

Sata had earlier made the claim in a Labour Day speech that men who shaved their heads were harming the Zambian economy because poor women looking to sell combs in a Lusaka market would be put out of business. 

Jokes and catchy slogans cannot mask a failed presidency however. Which is what Sata’s was. His presidency will need to be analysed frankly by his successor if improvements are to be made.

For now, Zambia is mourning a man who will always be remembered in Zambian political folklore for his political nous and popular appeal. He also saw the country through its first peaceful transition of political power to the opposition since the coming of multiparty politics.

Lets hope that feat can be repeated now.

Posted in Civil Society, Democracy, Human Rights, Political Parties, Transition | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments