Democracy deepens when leaders are censuredDate Released: Wed, 25 February 2015 10:00 +0200
ONE day, when the hysteria has long died down, we may remember last week as one in which democracy took an important step forward.
Democracy here is more than 20 years old. But reaction to events in Parliament suggests many of us have still not learned an important truth about democracies: that they are in trouble not when those who hold power try to abuse it, but when they get away with trying to abuse it.
It has become routine here to see every threat to democracy as the end of the system. This is partly a result of a myth mentioned in last week’s column — the deep-rooted belief that democracy is doomed here, however well it seems to be doing, because it always fails in Africa (Botswana, Ghana and Senegal, among others, suggest otherwise, but the fear is not based on evidence). It stems from another fantasy too: the assumption that democracies emerge from day one in perfect working order, fully formed and immune to challenge. This ignores the concrete experience of every democracy on the planet.
There is nothing obvious about the idea that, if you wield power, you do so only on behalf of the people who can, in principle, tell you what you can and cannot do. Or about the idea that your power is limited by the constitution and the courts, and by the rights of those who oppose you or give you a hard time. And so, in all new democracies — and in many old ones too — it is inevitable that power holders will try to test how serious the limits really are. If they get away with it, democracy is weakened. If they don’t, the system is a whole lot stronger because a precedent is set: it becomes clear that a line has been crossed that should not be breached again. This happens not because the power holders are deeply in love with democracy but because they are forced to realise that there are severe costs to overstepping the boundaries.
This is what happened in Parliament last week. First, government assurances that signals in Parliament will never again be jammed can almost certainly be taken at face value. Whoever decided on this not particularly bright strategy now knows that the trouble it caused far outweighed any imagined benefit it might have produced. Anyone who suggests it will be reminded what happened last time and will probably be forced to think again.
Second, it seems unlikely that armed men will invade Parliament again. The issue may be settled in the courts but, even if it isn’t, the negative reaction must surely have outweighed the imagined benefit of showing unruly opposition MPs who is boss. Parliament still needs a way to ensure members who in future might really disrupt its debates are removed from the chamber. The events will probably prompt it to find a democratic way of doing this.
Third, there did seem to be a greater understanding last week that using the office of the speaker to wage interparty war is winning few friends. Speaker Baleka Mbete took a far less active a role in debates than usual and those who presided in her place seemed more willing to try to be fair to all parties. It seems reasonable to assume this was a response to the backlash against partisanship. Of course, it would be first prize if the majority party recognised that it is impossible to be speaker and chair the governing party. But, even if that does not happen, it does seem likely that parliamentary chairing will be less partisan.
Fourth, the outcry against politicians who call opponents names that sound like calls to violence has been heard — those who used these names, on both sides of the House, have apologised. The apology is less important than that they have been forced to accept another line that may not be crossed in future.
Fifth, MPs may still call each other names but there was a shift in the tenor of debate last week: President Jacob Zuma tried to reach out to some of his opponents, while the Economic Freedom Fighters did what they should have done in the first place — signal that it will wait until March 11, when Zuma is meant to answer questions in the House. So at least some of the parties may have seen the events at the state of nation address as a warning of the costs of turning Parliament into a war zone.
In all of these cases, the events that prompted the usual despair whenever democracy is under threat may have been a signal to those who caused the problem that they went too far and need to pull back. The result is likely to be a democracy in which those lines will not be crossed again.
When democracy’s next test comes, it will be important to remember the lesson of this one — that the fact that it happened is far less important to democracy’s future here than whether there are ways of ensuring that it does not happen again.
By Steven Friedman
President Jacob Zuma listens to the state of the nation debate in Parliament this week. Opposition parties await his response on Thursday. Picture: GCIS
Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.