Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Like Republicans, the ANC needs reinvention

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18 Dec 2012 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive

In the face of huge problems the ANC, like the Republicans in the US, clings to outmoded dogmas, writes Tony Leon

AUSTEN Chamberlain, who served as leader of the UK’s Conservative Party in the 1920s, reputedly once said that he would "rather take the advice of his valet" than take instructions from his party’s conference.

It is salutary that in the history of the Tory party, arguably the most successful political machine in the modern democratic world, he was one of only two of its leaders who never served as prime minister in the 20th century. Seventy-five years later, William Hague had the unhappy distinction of being the other one.

Whatever his other leadership lapses, African National Congress (ANC) President Jacob Zuma does not suffer from a tin ear when it comes to listening to his party.

In August 2007, before elected party leader, he told Time magazine: "I go with the overwhelming feeling of this country; if the majority says ‘Zuma do this’, I will do it."

Since I will be in the South Pacific when Zuma is — on the current reading of the tea leaves — re-elected as the president of the ANC, I cannot comment on the final outcomes of the elections at Mangaung. However, that the traditional approach of presenting a united leadership face to the country has been breached, and even the highest court in the land had to adjudicate the seating of a key province, suggests an infirmity of purpose in SA’s oldest political movement. Of course, it began five years ago: having committed regicide in Polokwane, the comrades developed a taste for blood, and the bloodletting has continued since then.

It is symbolic that the ANC has returned to Bloemfontein, the site of its founding, for its centenary conference. This was also where the National Party was born in 1915, and the clashes between the ideologies and tactics of two largest nationalist movements etched themselves across the bloody and turbulent canvas of the 20th century.

From its far narrower base, the Nats dominated South African politics for the second half of the 20th century until, powerless and shorn of purpose and leadership, it collapsed, in a delicious twist of history, into the folds of its mortal foe, the ANC, in 2004. Historian Hermann Giliomee described its end as "a prostitute’s funeral". The point about the NP’s collapse, despite its dominance for nearly half a century, was that, despite its success in uniting and empowering Afrikaans South Africans, and latterly the white group as a whole, it argued with the larger forces and currents of South African history and, once it had lost this existential argument in 1994, its end was assured.

Financial Times journalist Jurek Martin, one of the most astute observers on US politics, was in SA recently. He drew a fascinating parallel between the ANC and its ideological and overseas opposite, the Republican Party, another of history’s more successful democratic movements, licking its wounds after its recent failed bid to recapture the White House. Interestingly, both parties were born, 70 years apart, to struggle against oppression — slavery in the US and minority domination in SA. Martin notes that he did not expect to find a political similarity between them, "but it exists".

"Put crudely, both are corrupt and living in the past and each may be at a turning point in their respective histories, if they could only recognise it." Martin believes that, in the face of huge problems afflicting both countries — the looming "fiscal cliff" in the US and major socioeconomic problems in SA, both parties cling to outmoded dogmas, while the problems in each "cry out for nonideological approaches".

Strangely enough, and more than eight years ago, while witnessing George Bush’s come-from-behind re-election victory in 2004, I drew the same parallel, although for different reasons. I was trying to figure out why, to borrow the words of one commentator, "unemployed waitresses stood in line to vote for tax cuts for billionaires". This confirmation of Marx’s "false consciousness" rested, in my view, on the ability of the Republicans to construct a big-tent party and house within its hugely divergent interest groups. They mobilised their contradictory base along values — or "Gods, Guns and Gays", in the words of their key strategist. Back then, I commented that the ANC had constructed an equally large tarpaulin in SA, covering everyone in it from unemployed rural farm workers to billionaires, and mobilised them on the potent vote-winners of racial identity and liberation.

Nearly a decade later, the formula has ceased to work for the Republicans. The ANC, while still very much in power, is showing the stresses and strains that occur when "a vote for a better yesterday" loses its shine.

The path from Mangaung will provide the clues on whether this mighty party has the formula for its reinvention.

Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Required reading in the build-up to Mangaung

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11 Dec 2012 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive

The choices for books of the year that feature in the selections of The Economist and the New York Times make relevant reading for those heading to Mangaung, writes Tony Leon

AUSTRALIA provided us with the concept of "the cultural cringe" — or the internalised inferiority complex, which causes people in one country to dismiss their own country’s culture as inferior to that of other nations.

Without seeking external validation for my own literary choices this year, and as a contribution to filling the Christmas stocking and also providing some relevant reading for those heading later this week to Mangaung, I was quite struck by two of the choices for "books of the year" that feature in the selections of The Economist and the New York Times.

Robert Caro’s fourth-volume study on the years of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, is not simply a minutely and fascinatingly detailed study of the assumption of the presidency by the rough-hewn Texan after the assassination of John F Kennedy, it is an instructive manual on the uses of presidential power for great purpose.

In his introduction, Caro — whose life work has been his study of the hugely consequential and flawed 36th president of the US — tellingly observes: "Although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power also reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary…. But as a man obtains more power, concealment is less necessary. The curtain begins to rise."

Johnson was not shy to use his power for corrupt personal purpose — his wife held a swathe of radio and TV licences in Texas, for example. As his first order of presidential business he set about enacting the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which enfranchised African Americans. When told by his aides that it was a hopeless task that went against the political grain of his fellow Southerners, he proclaimed: "Well, what’s the presidency for?"

He then proceeded to use his genius-like levels of persuasion and cajolement to ram it through the Senate. In the process, he observed, "we have lost the South for a generation". In fact, the Democrats "lost the South" forever, but the legislation stands as testament to Johnson’s achievement.

It would appear that President Jacob Zuma has Johnsonian levels of persuasion in his own party. One of his apparent attributes, in contrast to those of his predecessor, is the ability to empathise and listen to others. The contrast was well described a few years ago by the US journalist, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, herself a veteran of the struggle for civil rights in the US. She wrote: "It is said that (Thabo) Mbeki decides and never consults, while Zuma consults and never decides."

With decision time upon him and the nation later this week, we know the outcome of the horse-race side of the African National Congress (ANC) conference: in an essentially one-horse field, Zuma is a racing certainty for re-election, while we don’t quite know if Cyril Ramaphosa — the proverbial prince-across-the-water — is a starter or a nonstarter for the number two slot. But on the politically less sexy, but arguably more consequential, side of things, determining the policy choices for the country, matters appear less settled.

According to analyst Steven Friedman, despite the sound and fury of various policy resolutions, it will be a case of smoke and mirrors: from property rights to nationalisation, the rhetoric will disguise the triumph of the status quo. Or, as leftwing scourge of the ANC, Patrick Bond, once termed it, a case of "talk left, walk right".

I don’t know if I share this certitude — and not because party conferences are always determinative of governing behaviour. The danger would appear to lie in the willingness of policy makers to ignore the weight of outside voices and views in charting the way ahead. This acute form of political autism, where the sounds of the party insiders are the only voices that matter, was given expression last week by ANC economic policy chief Enoch Godongwana. He blithely informed us, that notwithstanding warnings from mining executives, credit-rating downgrades and a looming investment strike, the party would proceed to increase mining taxes.

The second book is set nearly 500 years ago in the court of intrigue of Henry VIII’s Tudor England.

Hilary Mantel’s historical novel, Bring Up the Bodies, charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, who rose on the basis of his acute intellect and expert reading of the tides of power to become the king’s chief minister and architect of the English reformation. But the body count in the book starts to rise when those in the royal circle begin to lose touch with the objective basis of their own preferment, and the basis of their wealth and power. Cromwell himself was to lose his head, although the book ends before he does.

SA is a sovereign nation and a complex one at that. But we have an acute dependence on foreign investment flows and are facing an increasingly vulnerable balance of payments position. Let’s hope that some outside voices ring through in Mangaung next week.

  Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Chaskalson transcended his bias and loyalties

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04 Dec 2012 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive

Many obituarists of Arthur Chaskalson have diminished his legacy by ignoring his ability to reconcile party loyalty and judicial independence, writes Tony Leon

Arthur Chaskalson

JAMES Baldwin once described the US as "the most desperately schizophrenic of republics". I wonder what he would have made of the presence of so many of the good and the great (and the not so great) of our political elite at yesterday’s funeral of former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson? Prominent among the mourners were those who have spent the past few years digging tunnels under the constitutional foundations of our own republic, whose creation stands as a monument to Chaskalson’s legal creativity and political fealty.

The fall of giants this past week (Chaskalson’s death came within days of Jakes Gerwel’s) has led to an outpouring of praise and nostalgic sentiment. With the rule of law under stress, it is comforting to look back at a seeming golden era of constitution-building and its architects, and lament the absence of such figures today.

But the many obituarists of Chaskalson, while correctly underlining his legal pre-eminence, his innate modesty and his abiding commitment to social justice, have diminished his legacy by ignoring his ability to reconcile two seeming irreconcilable things: party loyalty and judicial independence.

Only a statement by the South African Communist Party (SACP) drew attention to the fact that, in the 1960s and 1970s, Chaskalson was "an underground member of the SACP" and, according to it, also served as the party emissary at the constitutional negotiations in the 1990s. In fact, Chaskalson’s official role at the negotiations was as chairman of the "technical committee" rather than as a party negotiator, although his nomination was at the behest of the African National Congress and the SACP.

Indeed, at the multiparty negotiations in Kempton Park, I recall a rather tense moment when he presented a draft that said the draft bill of rights would be interpreted in a manner consistent with a democracy "governed by the principle of equality". When I pointed out that without further qualification, this would simply flatten out future individual claims based on liberty and could lead to many totalitarian temptations in future, Chaskalson was none too pleased. But, after some wrangling, the point was conceded and we managed to insert "freedom" alongside "equality" into the limitations’ clause.

But how was this formidable partisan able to rise to the challenge of interpreting the bill of rights, in his role as founding president of the Constitutional Court, in a way that "defended the constitution, protected human rights … gained the respect of all sections of the community", which was how Chaskalson described his task after his appointment in 1994? I suppose the answer lay not in denying bias and old loyalties but, to an extent, in transcending them.

Other fine legal minds have juggled these roles: US Chief Justice John Roberts, for example had loyally served in the White Houses of Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush. Despite this background and bias, this year he upheld the bulk of the most progressive Democratic health legislation in a generation, "Obamacare", as it is nicknamed.

During his tenure, Chaskalson displayed considerable deference toward the ruling party when some of its key political interests were at stake (green-lighting floor-crossing, disallowing old ID books for the 1999 general election and refusing to implement proportionality in the allocation of seats for the executive mayoral committee of Johannesburg are three examples). Yet, when it came to protecting citizens’ rights broadly, Chaskalson had no problem finding against the government, on issues as wide-ranging as the provision of emergency housing for the homeless to the hugely consequential Treatment Action Campaign case of 2002, which arrested the madness which then passed for state HIV-AIDS policy.

On the subject of conflict of constitutional roles, spare a thought for Helen Zille. As the national opposition leader, she is at the forefront of defending our constitution as a sort of mighty oak tree that needs to be nurtured on the rather stony soil in which it was planted nearly two decades ago.

Yet, in her other role, as premier of the Western Cape, she must find its protection about as useful as a modest bonsai tree.

With the Congress of the South African Trade Unions threatening to unleash mayhem on the province’s farms, she is reduced to writing letters to the national police commissioner and requesting the president to send in the army. Unlike even a small-town mayor in the US, our constitution provides no original policing powers to the provinces and their leadership.

Our constitution is flawed and reflects the sum, and strength, of the political forces present at its creation. But it certainly beats the alternatives — of not having one at all or hollowing out its rights and entitlements. But it needs constant nurturing by fine minds and independent intellects.

Follow Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Stupendous Breaches of Constitutional Faith

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3 Dec 2012 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication: Cape Argus