How to avoid another year of political insanity

Graham Sell

One needs no Latin to understand a stunningly simple proposal that, while difficult to implement, would address a multitude of evils that have seeped into the very tissue and bone of our body politic. With the precision of a CTI scanner, highly respected management consultant Graham Sell hones in on the Constitutional provision that bestows central power on party leaders and prevents the electorate from holding individual MP’s accountable. Surgically removing this malignancy would make a world of difference, he argues. Biznews has consistently carried critiques of the corrupting and power-centralising Constitutionally-backed Party List system. However, this most astute of analyses avoids the alienating and finger-pointing tendency we have toward blaming one particular party or another. Sell gives examples of where parties other than the ANC have mercilessly cracked down on MP’s or councillors who failed to tow the official line. We live on a daily basis with the consequences of such a flawed system. We don’t have to look far to see how easily corruption and other nefarious behaviour benefit from it – and how it keeps enough internal party critics silent. Who would have thought that we’d be motivated to lobby for a two thirds parliamentary vote to change a provision in our revered and globally-admired Constitution? Not much of it mind you. Just this one provision, which it seems the Codesa negotiators modelled on all future presidential incumbents being clones of Madiba. – Chris Bateman

By Graham Sell*

Forgive the Latin, but we were subjected to so many televised court cases in 2016 that it has almost become our 12th official language by default; although there is an upside to using this ancient language as many things sound so much better in Latin than they do in English. For example: using nos erant semper in stercore erat tantum in profundum, quod varia to describe 2016 sounds more refined than its English equivalent of, we were always in the shit, it was only the depth that varied.

I am not going to rehash all last year’s South African stories, events and court judgements, or the Brexit and Trump election results, as these subjects remain dissected and reported upon ad nauseam. Putting them all together in one sentence, though, does reinforce the point that 2016 was a year of worldwide political insanity.

2016 – the year that was. More magic available at

What we do need to urgently address in 2017 is how our own country has contrived to get into such a parlous state, together with what can and must be done to correct the inherent systemic imbalances.

I have already expressed a view on social media platforms that our much vaunted Constitution can be compared to a New Year’s resolution – full of good intentions, but when it really matters no ultimate consequences for breach. This is borne out by the fact that Jacob Zuma remains at the helm, even after he has breached the Constitution in blatant and unrepentant contravention of his oath of office. His latest alleged transgression, relating to the establishment of a “rogue” trade union (WAU) should, if proven, be the final straw. But then again we know he has an uncanny instinct for survival.

Nevertheless, there are a growing number of interfaith and civil organisations such as Save South Africa, who are loudly calling for him to step down or be removed. ANC stalwarts and many MK Veterans are also calling for leadership change, yet they are all missing a very important point.

Replacing one leader with another is merely treating a symptom rather than addressing the root cause of the problem. It would simply be a case of rex mortuus est, vivat rex “The king is dead, long live the king”.

The fact of the matter is that the Constitution grants extremely wide-ranging executive powers to the President. In this, the Constitution naively assumes that the incumbent has purity of heart and genuine integrity.  While generally true of Nelson Mandela, it is clear that the present incumbent is noticeably lacking in these qualities, and there is no guarantee that his successor will be any different.

Treat the cause, not the symptom

I therefore have no doubt that the Constitution itself is at the heart of the problem. The constitutional pillars relating to equality, dignity, separation of powers, and fundamental human rights are admirable. But the incorporated political dispensation is a legislative defect that enables manipulative and/or corrupt politicians to undermine these pillars.

Governance at all levels, once we have voted, is at the whim of political party leaders with no further accountability to the electorate. And whilst it is always easiest to point the cadre deployment/patronage finger at the ANC, the DA and EFF are also guilty of governance by diktat.

For example, in November 2016 the DA suspended five City of Cape Town councillors for supposedly ignoring a directive to vote for the leadership’s preferred candidate for chairperson of the Kraaifontein sub-council; and the EFF are facing a court case from a former MP whom they expelled for refusing to be redeployed from a position as an MP in the National Council of Provinces, to that of proportional representative councillor in Vhembe District Council. And these are not, as you might hope, isolated incidents.

It is the unaccountability of omnipotent party leaders, and their deployed cadres, which fosters the prevailing attitude of privilege and arrogance that is so common among our current crop of politicians.

It is also important to recognise that our ability to vote every five years is not, on its own, proof of democratic governance. Only when there is full and enforceable political accountability for the duration between elections can we make that claim.

I strongly believe that we need to urgently launch a civil-society-led formal review of our Constitution – call it CODESA 2 for want of a better descriptor, its primary objectives being: the elimination of inherent accountability defects in our electoral system; the definition of appropriate and enforceable consequences for politicians (at all levels of government) who breach their oath of office; and the definition of more practical limits on the executive powers of the President.

Our biggest challenge in this regard is that politicians like the system just the way it is, and they are the only ones with the power to make the changes we need them to make.

Even so, 2017 must be dedicated to making full and effective accountability to the people a political reality. We have the organisations and people to drive this initiative if they recognise the Constitutional imperative, and are willing to work together. Organisations such as Save South Africa; The Helen Suzman Foundation; Freedom Under Law; OUTA; and people such as retired Constitutional Court Justice Zak Jacoob immediately come to mind.

Thuli Madonsela

The icing on this particular cake would be if Thuli Madonsela could also be persuaded to add her considerable intellect and constitutional experience to the cause. After all, while it is primarily about political power, any resulting recommended Constitutional amendments will also significantly enhance social justice objectives.

Are they, or others, prepared to grasp this nettle before conniving politicians trade enough votes to make arbitrary changes that suit only themselves? Think of potential coalitions, if not in 2019, most probably in 2024, before you say that it can’t happen.

For those willing to take on the challenge, it will most certainly be a hard road to walk, but as Madiba said “It is always impossible until it is done”.

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