19 Feb 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication BDlive
The ANC has served notice that provinces’ powers and boundaries, perhaps even existence, are up for review, writes Tony Leon
UNTIL I watched the History Channel’s docudrama, Miracle Rising, the other night, I was unaware of the roles played by stars Whoopi Goldberg, Alfre Woodard and Robert De Niro and a clutch of other celebrities in our fraught transition from apartheid to democracy. The appearance of Charlize Theron was at least validated by the fact that she actually cast a ballot in the 1994 election, doubtless the most beautiful elector in the Benoni polling station queue on April 27.
Cynically, it brought to mind the Australian term, "cultural cringe", the internalised inferiority complex borne by colonials, where local authors never received due recognition until their works received a "London hearing". Or, in our case, some sexing up via Hollywood glamour.
Still, let’s not cavil: no doubt the ratings for the story of South Afrca’s journey to democracy were enhanced by the sprinkling of some stardust on it; and Miracle Rising does vividly recall that between right-wing bombings, the African National Congress (ANC)-Inkatha Freedom Party civil war and sinister third forces, the founding of our constitutional democracy was a close-run thing indeed.
The drama of nearly two decades ago has given way to the duller sheen of living with the constitutional realities bequeathed to us from the Kempton Park settlement. A matter that did not receive the Hollywood treatment was linking public representatives to constituencies. During the constitutional negotiations, the Democratic Party’s Ken Andrew proposed introducing multimember parliamentary constituencies. This found no favour with either the ANC or the exiting power, the National Party (NP). And as ANC negotiator Cyril Ramaphosa defined "sufficient consensus" as what the ANC and NP agreed on — "the rest of the parties can get stuffed", as he delicately put it — Andrew’s proposal was dead on arrival. The same fate befell the idea when Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert tried to revive it about a decade later.
Now there is a plan to obtain a million signatures to force direct accountability on our politicians. I will be surprised if weary voters will pay heed to this campaign.
Anyway, in the now extinct world of white politics, the constituency system did not exactly witness the rise of empowered MPs prepared to buck the party line. I can think of only two examples in more than 50 years (Helen Suzman in Houghton and John Wiley in Simon’s Town) where MPs had a sufficient following to go against the political grain in their districts and still win re-election.
Despite the absence of direct accountability in our current set-up, we have no shortage of designated constituencies; in fact we have too many of them. How many taxpayers are aware that they are funding a whopping 884 constituency allowances (one for each of the 400 MPs, 54 permanent National Council of Provinces members and 430 provincial legislators)? The grateful, and doubtless unsuspecting, taxpaying citizen is funding a minimum of R40,000 a month for every representative for this privilege, which brings the annual total bill to about R500m. Perhaps one in 100 voters has any idea of the identity of their political representative, but this system, in which every party participates, is simply a backdoor method of state funding for political parties.
It also raises a larger question: instead of tilting at the windmill of what is not in our constitution (directly elected MPs), wouldn’t we be better off interrogating what is in it and whether it’s all fit for purpose: for example, do we need nearly 1,000 national and provincial representatives and does each level of government fulfil an essential function? The weakest link is the provinces. The ANC has served notice that their powers and boundaries, perhaps even their existence, are up for review. Doubtless some cynicism animates this idea, with the notion, perhaps, of gerrymandering the Western Cape out of opposition hands. But it does provide a spotlight to consider this jam-layer in our constitutional sandwich.
Starved of meaningful original powers and revenue-raising devices, Democratic Alliance MP John Steenhuisen recently described the provinces as "amorphous geographic blobs, which don’t provide much bang for the buck". But even within these limits, more could be done to use provinces for something beyond dispensing patronage and for fiscal transfers between national and local governments. Pushing the 33 concurrent powers they enjoy with national government is one obvious area.
In the 1980s, when Ken Livingstone controlled the Greater London Council, he drove then prime minister Margaret Thatcher mad by using his platform to pursue everything from nuclear disarmament to highlighting national unemployment. So enraged was Thatcher that she eventually closed down the council. Before anyone here does a Thatcher on our provinces, isn’t it time for those in control of them to push the envelope further on their powers?• Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA