The role of parliament and political parties in a time of crisis

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File picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency(ANA).

The newly elected interim leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), John Steenhuisen, recently  intimated in a television interview that he would change the style and tone of debate of the DA in Parliament from continually attacking and knocking the ANC for its failures and maladministration in the government of the country to a more constructive one of presenting alternative policies and relate how  successful the DA has been in governing, in particular in the Western Cape and in municipalities in which it has taken control. 

This is to be greatly welcomed. This positive change of strategy is, it is submitted, what people in general and informed opinion in South Africa desires. They actually want more conduct and behaviour in the form of parliamentary co-operation in the interest of the country and its people.  Many are appalled at the pandemonium that EFF wrought in Parliament during the years of the Zuma Presidency and are not impressed by the grandstanding of some of political leaders, always harping negatively on virtually all the new leadership of ANC, under Ramaphosa, has done or is trying to do in difficult circumstances.

South Africa finds itself in a state of very profound crisis, both politically and economically. What is at stake is the fate of our democracy itself. When a democracy fails it is invariably replaced by autocracy, oligarchy and ultimately dictatorship.

Parliamentary democracy as developed at Westminster is a universal legacy and a priceless heritage. South Africa has moved from a system involving a sovereign racist apartheid parliament to a democratic non-racial parliament operating in terms of an exemplary Constitution and a Bill of Rights. This flowed from a heroic liberation struggle involving the blood of South African martyrs.

Parliament’s manifold functions involve not only the making of laws, but also to ensure in the government in South Africa is by the people under the Constitution for the people. Parliament as a venerable institution fulfils this cardinal function by electing the President, by providing a national forum for public debate and a deliberation and consideration of all national political issues. This results in the passing of legislation as well as scrutinising, criticising and overseeing the conduct of the executive. This is a function of Parliament in general, but in particular the opposition parties. 

The real work of Parliament is actually occurs in its committees, like SCOPA, the Select Committee on Public Accounts, where departments must account for how money allocated by Parliament is spent according to its appropriation. Each department of state must also appear before the relevant parliamentary committee and account for its spending of moneys appropriated to it from the treasury. In this way political parties can work together to ensure competent administration, without corruption and maladministration. To a great extent this work disintegrated with disastrous consequence during the Zuma administration, due, inter alia, to so-called ‘state capture’ and related serious aberrations, condoned by the Zuma administration. In so doing parliamentary oversight of the national executive became largely dysfunctional.

It is of the utmost importance that the oversight that Parliament is obliged to take by the Constitution be restored as required by section 1 which lists as a fundamental value ‘a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness’. This requires good faith and co-operation between the government of the day and the opposition parties, and in particular, the official opposition, the DA and its new interim leader, John Steenhuisen.

The dire political and economic situation in South Africa today necessitates, it is submitted, the opposition to put forward alternative policies to that of the government as well as engaging the executive on how working together the political parties, particularly the governing ANC and official opposition, the DA, can find pragmatic and wise policies and strategies that will ameliorate the crisis that the country finds itself in.  Although this does not preclude robust political debate, what it does require is that political parties and their leaders, put aside narrow political interests and agendas, and in the national interest endeavour to find a broad based consensus on the crucial issues confronting the country. 

The Ramaphosa faction of the ANC and the DA actually have great deal of common ground on important issues, such as the need for a resource driven economy, the expedition of domestic and foreign investment, the elimination of corruption, support for the National Democratic Plan, which is of a social democratic nature that can address poverty and economic equality within a democratic framework. Both are profoundly committed to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. 

Ramaphosa is indeed one of the important architects, if not its chief architect, both of the Interim and 1996 Constitutions respectively, as erstwhile Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly. However he is a leader who at present needs considerable political support because the Zuma/Mogoshule faction within the ANC is undermining him and desires to unseat him and in so doing  implement the socialist National Democratic Revolution involving large scale nationalisation. If they were successful in this regard the consequences would be catastrophic for the country and its people and herald the demise of constitutional democracy in South Africa.

Furthermore, the politicians must sense and understand the mood and feeling of the people, who are sick and tired and indeed exhausted of parliamentary histrionics and pandemonium and who earnestly desire political leaders and parliamentarians to come together across political boundaries to seek a resolution for the dire situation of crisis the country finds itself in. The time for grandstanding and chaos in Parliament must be over and parliamentarians must now seriously address themselves to the needs of the country and its people. This can be done if there is the political will to do so. 

Ultimately this could lead to a re-orientation of political parties or even a government of national unity in spirit or indeed in fact. There are precedents for this in parliamentary democracies as in both the United Kingdom and South Africa in the decade of the 1930’s this occurred to address the world economic depression at that time. What is at present urgently necessary is political co-operation between the government and the official opposition, the DA and other like-minded parties in the national interest. The Zuma era negated all the virtues that a system of parliamentary democracy actually stood for and this manifestly indicated that something was seriously amiss in our body politic.

South Africa is a country of infinite potential and its founding fathers crafted a superb Constitution at inordinately great cost and sacrifice by made by so many courageous persons. Our political leaders need to act by co-operation across political barriers and with the assistance of the private sector to find a modus operandi to address the serious economic and political challenges we face and that threaten the very existence of our constitutional democracy. There is no easy way out of the present crisis, therefore it is imperative that political leadership in both the ANC, under Ramaphosa, and the DA, under Steenhuisen, and like-minded parties rise to the occasion in the national interest.


George Devenish is an emeritus professor at UKZN and one of the scholars that assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.