ANC leadership change signals portent for true democracy

The National Assembly is feeling its oats and maturing as those who elected its parties but are bound by Luthuli House rule, roar in dissonance with a Parliament that cannot speak properly for them. Bound by the straightjacket of proportional representation, Parliament has however shown its potential as a democratic institution – certainly with its committees who have of late consistently called state-captured institutions and the Zuptoids to account. As the executive director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership, Chuck Stephens writes that we need a new style of leadership more than a new leadership. He’s talking about the PR system and how the ANC’s national executive committee holds sway because of it. Stephens is prompted by ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe’s announcement that he’ll seek no senior positions come his party’s elective conference this December. He says this signals a new era where the electorate is much younger and will vote for change, perhaps even bringing in the DA’s Maimane as President and the EFF’s Julius Malema as his deputy in two years’ time. Hopefully, the PR issue will feature prominently in the hustings, with a promise by presidential hopefuls to replace Soviet-style party dominance with a more accountable candidate system. – Chris Bateman

By Chuck Stephens, writing in his personal capacity*

The immediate response to Mantashe’s announcement that he will not be seeking any leadership position in the upper echelons of the ANC was speculation about who would succeed him.

But we don’t just need new leaders, we need a new way of leading. It is time for Democracy to move past the Vanguard Era. It might be better if no one replaced Mantashe in terms of the two-centres-of-power configuration of Chief Luthuli House and the National Assembly.

African National Congress Secretary General Gwede Mantashe. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Parliament has had time to mature, and the events of the past year have made it clear that the Party structures like the Big Six and the NEC have been hampering the National Assembly from coming into its own.  After all, neither the Big Six nor the NEC are mentioned in the South African Constitution. They are party structures, not government formations.

The Big Six is even bigger than government when you think of current events. It deploys MPs to the National Assembly because they are not elected on a constituency-based system, for a geographical “riding”. Thus all the commotion about a secret No-confidence vote – to get a more accurate reading. That is only happening because Luthuli House is bigger than Parliament.

The President is elected by MPs in the National Assembly, according to the Constitution. Does it envisage that a Vanguard Party will set up its own parallel structure in advance, at an elective conference, before going to the polls? It makes Parliament, Deputy President, House Leader, Speaker and Cabinet all subservient to Luthuli House.

According to the Constitution, the President should report to Parliament. Thabo Mbeki recently wrote that MPs should be free to vote by the conscience – to resonate with the Electorate. MPs are not elected by their Party, they are appointed after the Electorate allocates seats to different parties. But what has happened is that the Vanguard party upstages the MPs that it deploys, and tells them how to vote.

Even in constituency-based electoral systems, MPs belong to party, and there are Parliamentary Whips to keep them in line. Parties also have a role to play even between elections, but not a dominant role. Once a government is formed, until either its mandate ends, or it is “brought down” by a vote of No-confidence, then President and Cabinet run the country, under the oversight of Parliament.

The Vanguard Era is a genetic throwback to the Socialist Soviet Republics of the Communist Bloc. Its place in our constitutional democracy has been out of all proportion, and for far too long. One good way to hasten its end will be for the ruling alliance to break up and new coalitions or formations to emerge. We are watching that happen, right before our eyes.

In the 2014 election, only about half the Electorate registered to vote. Most of those who voted were over 35 years of age. By 2019, the younger half may well register in order to show its disapproval for an anachronistic system that is not serving youth interests well. A combo like Maimane for President with Malema as Deputy President will have the “look and feel” of the future, instead of the past.

Thank you Gwede for your courage is stepping aside. I hope that Mo Ibrahim has some reward for you?  Better yet if no one replaces you in a Big Six as we know it. This is one extinction that we would welcome. Let us save the rhinos but let go of the Vanguard Party dinosaur. Viva the National Assembly!

  • Chuck Stephens is Executive Director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. 
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