Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Operatic Politics

LAST week’s election was the grand opera of our democracy. It was dramatic and sung through: outcast-turned-folk hero Jacob Zuma hit the high notes with Awulethu Mshini Wam. It was received with acclaim from most parts of the auditorium, especially the poorer seats.
Meanwhile, democratic diva Helen Zille’s aria, Koekie Loekie, delighted a growing minority in the gallery. Several reputations — such as that of fading prima donna Patricia de Lille, died a thousand deaths. Even the toppled regent, King Thabo, made a brief — and typically elusive — appearance in the grand finale: the breakaway jig of his camp following drew less audience support than expected.
On a 77% poll, it was a near sellout at the box office. But if the election was one of high drama and soaring scores, let’s hope that, when the action shifts next week to parliament, it doesn’t descend to the low farce and disappointing reviews the national assembly has generated since the end of the Mandela era in 1999.
Since then, parliament has, in many areas — from stifling the arms deal inquiry, to feather-bedding ethically-challenged MPs and drowning out opposing voices — “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity”, to borrow the famous phrase of Abba Eban.
When parliament convenes on Tuesday, it will be almost 13 years to the day since it enacted our new constitution which, in its majestic reach and detailed prose, promised accountable government and legislative oversight, and formalised the role of the opposition.
A North Korean-like veneration of the presidency, ritualised name-calling and defanging the bite of question time were not part of the package — but, in essence, under Thabo Mbeki’s baton this is a fair working description of the previous two parliaments.
His soaring and inclusive “I am an African” invocation of a humane tolerance as deputy president was never followed through as president. On the contrary, his sneering indifference to opponents — both external and internal — became in the end almost a parody. He brought to mind Linus, the Peanuts cartoon character, expostulating: “Humanity? I love humanity — it’s people I can’t stand.”
The relationship between government and opposition is crucial to our democratic health. But it’s not about love or mutual admiration — it’s about respect for institutions and choice. Under Mandela it was a little like Fatal Attraction. He enjoyed and revered parliament and its institutions, and would, countless times, phone me for a chat or, flatteringly, “to seek advice”. He even once, during a particularly brutal spat with Mangosuthu Buthelezi, asked me to forego my speaking turn in a debate so he could explain his position in private. When I declined the suggestion (as I did his offer of a cabinet seat), it didn’t affect the relationship one jot.
I also led the opposition for nine-tenths of the Mbeki presidency. Like the derivative assets of a bad bank, the relationship was — to put it mildly — fairly toxic.
However, after the 2004 election, which Mbeki won decisively I, literally, reached across the aisle, stepping down from the podium to shake Mbeki’s hand and pledging to behave as an “opponent, not an enemy”. My attempt at glasnost proved unsuccessful; he seemed warm enough, but a few days later his confidant, Sydney Mufamadi, repaid the compliment in a swaggering currency: “The contract between us and the masses cannot be supplanted by a handshake. Thank you very much, Mr Leon, your hand must not cross the floor,” he told parliament.
This parliament is likely to be very different.
For example, Jacob Zuma appears already to “have reached across the aisle”. His post-election remarks at the Independent Electoral Commission suggested respect for non-ANC voters and their choices. He also faces a somewhat larger opposition force, with 30 former comrades in the COPE ranks.
The front-running candidate to lead the DA, and the official opposition in parliament, Ryan Coetzee, has a quick brain and sharp elbows. He is impatient with the flummery of ritual, which has often substituted for real debate. Athol Trollip, the other major contender, speaks perfect Xhosa (when he assisted my housekeeper with a problem, telephonically, she refused to believe he was a “white man”).
Crucially, however, the tenor of government/opposition relations is set by the president. And as for the “Big Man” (as The Economist dubbed Zuma), he has a track record as a conciliator. But I also recall the words of a senior official in George W Bush’s administration, intimately involved with Zuma in his peace-broking efforts in Burundi. He told my study group at Harvard how he had witnessed first-hand the brutal (and in his view entirely necessary) manner in which Zuma threatened the recalcitrant parties there. “There’s nothing sweet and cuddly about him when the chips are down,” he said.
Perhaps, then, the spark of engaging debate — less of a danse macabre between the government and its opponents — and some lively drama will return to the stage. It’s past time for the long-suffering South African audience.

* Published 3 May in the Sunday Times.

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