Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Dear President Zuma, it's not too late to restore Parliament to its former

Bookmark and Share

Tony Leon | 19 November 2014 | Original Publication:  Rand Daily Mail

When police stifle opinion in Parliament, the light of our hard-won freedom flickers
DEAR President Jacob Zuma, last Thursday night, riot police entered the National Assembly to eject a member of Parliament who had called you “the greatest thief in the world”.

At the time, you were on the other side of the world in Brisbane, Australia.

Doubtless this grave insult to your office and dignity was deeply offensive. But your absence from these shores was because you were attending the G20 summit, the gathering of the leaders of the world’s most significant economic countries.

We are the only African member of this global club of the good and the great. Nigeria now has double our GDP, so we are no longer the continent’s biggest economy.

But we are, certainly, the only African country that is both of economic significance and a full-blown democracy.

Jacob Zuma
This is not a matter of opinion. While our country has fallen, sometimes precipitously, down the global benchmarks that matter, from perceptions of corruption to the measurement of our economic competitiveness, we have maintained our democratic credentials.

 In January this year, Freedom House, the democracy rating agency which measures “Freedom in the World”, rated our country as “fully free”.

If you measure that against the 10 other emerging market economies who sat around the table last week with you, you will see what an achievement that is. Only Argentina, Brazil and India are in our company. Your colleagues leading China, Russia, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Turkey head countries which Freedom House rates as either “not free” or “partly free.”

But now that police enter the hallowed portals of Parliament to eject errant members and interfere with their rights, all bets are off, as they say in racing. It will be interesting, perhaps sobering, to see where Freedom House places us next year.

Your opposite number from Great Britain, David Cameron, might offer a sobering historical perspective. We derive many of our parliamentary conventions, not least the position and status of The Speaker, from Westminster, rightly called “The Mother of Parliaments”.

Scroll back around 370 years to January 1642 when the king of England, Charles 1, forced his way into parliament accompanied by 400 soldiers. They were attempting to arrest five members of the House on charges of treason. That invasion of the inner sanctum was resisted by the speaker of the day, William Lenthall. When the troops marched into parliament, and the king demanded to know where the famous five were, the speaker faced him down. He said to the all-powerful monarch: “May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”

What speaker Lenthall was saying was simple and brave: he was a servant and protector of parliament and he would take on the mightiest force in the land to defend the institution. Of course, the events of that day led to two civil wars in England and, seven years later, Charles was beheaded as a public enemy by the triumphalist forces of parliament.

The speaker of our Parliament does not see herself as a defender of its interests, to put matters at their mildest. She could hardly do so, given the massive conflict of interest that goes to the heart of the matter: She is both speaker of Parliament and the chairman of the ruling party.

Mr President, you and I began democratic life in 1994 in different places. We were both members of minority parties. You were the leader of the ANC in KwaZulu- Natal, and while a member of its cabinet, your presence and participation in legislative proceedings was adjudicated by a party member from your then mortal enemy, speaker Inkosi Bonga Mdletshe of the Inkatha Freedom Party. But he gave you all the democratic space you needed back then.

I had fierce differences at the time with your party in the National Assembly, but my rights were protected by an ANC speaker of commendable independence, Dr Frene Ginwala. She allowed me freedom to speak and act and to contest matters, even though I led a party with just seven members.

You do not need to be a Steve Hofmeyr to know that our history did not begin in 1994. In fact, in your 2010 state of the nation speech, you specifically drew attention to the role played by one MP during the apartheid years. You said: “Let me acknowledge the role played by the late Mrs Helen Suzman. She was for a long time a lone voice in Parliament, calling for change.”

Yet by her acknowledgement, her voice would never have been heard were it not for the protection she was given by her political polar opposite, National Party speaker Henning Klopper. She recorded with gratitude: “Without his help I could not have functioned.”

It says a great deal about where we are now that far from protecting the interests of minorities, speaker Baleka Mbete is seen as their persecutor.

Mr President, you have enormous power. It was suggested at the weekend that events in Parliament last week were triggered by your demand that ANC MPs “Use their numbers to crush opposition”.

I sincerely hope this is not the case. But either way, may I sincerely suggest that you pause, think about history, think about our place in the world and pull back from the brink.

Yours sincerely.



Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Big Read: If we rise up, then walls fall

Bookmark and Share

06 Nov 2014 | Tony Leon | The Times

This Sunday, 25 years ago on November 9 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. There can be few modern events - perhaps other than Nelson Mandela's walk into freedom some three months later, and there is a direct link between both of them - which so symbolically, and on prime time television, defined the turning of the page of history.

"Things are always clearer through the rear-view mirror than the windscreen"
STOP, IT'S HAMMER TIME: A 1989 picture of the demolition of the Berlin Wall while East Berlin border guards watch from above the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Scholar Francis Fukuyama called it the "end of history", which it was for around 12 years until 9/11 in 2001, when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre were also reduced to smoking rubble and we were reminded, anew, that history mocks those who prematurely declare the endgame.

Still, the breaching of the 156km "iron curtain" erected by the Soviet-backed East German regime in 1961 to prevent its citizens from fleeing the claims of the dictatorship of the proletariat for the material pleasures, democratic choices and better life chances on offer in West Berlin stands out in the memory for many reasons, some of which still resonate today.

Some two years before thousands of East Berliners poured across the wall without being shot by border guards, unlike the 136 victims of such atrocities before them, the nemesis of the Soviet system he so opposed, US President Ronald Reagan, made a famous address at the Brandenburg Gate, very close to the wall of Berlin's division.

He was not the first US president to use divided Berlin as a backdrop for the claims of freedom against the tyranny next door: John F Kennedy had proclaimed "ich bin ein Berliner" just after the wall was constructed. Reagan used his speech - literally against the wall - to challenge the new, reforming Soviet boss, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and guarantor of its East German satellite: "Mr [Mikhail] Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

In fact when the wall fell, it was not because the Soviet leader tore it down, but rather because the "power of the powerless" - as anti-Soviet, pro-democracy leader, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia - described the people's revolution that swept away the 45-year imposition of communism across Eastern Europe. But Gorbachev was simply not prepared to use force to maintain the system.

His Chinese counterpart, Deng Xiaoping, in Beijing was not as fussy. He sent in tanks and soldiers to Tiananmen Square in June that year. An unknown number of pro-democracy demonstrators died.

When Gorbachev confided a few years later to Reagan's successor, George HW Bush, that the wall fell - and with it the aspirations of seven decades of Marxist Leninism - because "ordinary people made it happen", he was only half right. It also depended on whether the powers-that-were would defend it by force.

And, of course, the hinge of history always swings on events unknown to even the most careful and well-informed.

Although history makes the path it follows seem inevitable, "the view'', as Warren Buffett famously remarked, "is always clearer through the rear-view mirror than it is through the windscreen".

Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis recounts that at the beginning of 1989, the year of such shape-shifting change in Europe, China and South Africa, there were - just like the French Revolution that overthrew the divine right of kings two centuries before that - few signs of the upheavals in store.

As he noted: "What no one understood, at the beginning of 1989, was that the Soviet Union, its empire, its ideology and therefore the Cold War itself, was a sand pile ready to slide. All it took to make that happen were a few more grains of sand."

The people, in their masses and discontent with the slide in the price of Soviet commodities and the US outspending the Soviets in arms, all contributed.

But as I saw for myself, even just a few weeks before, it did not seem as though these events would conspire to tumble walls, empires and ideology. I was a guest of the [West] German government in Berlin just weeks before the wall came down. On a Saturday morning my local host, a Christian Democrat MP, took me on a tour, via the U-bahn, or underground, from West to East. Even with a South African passport back then, provided you paid hard currency, the East German border guards would give you a day visa to visit the "showcase capital of the showcase country of the Eastern Bloc", as he sarcastically described the grim city of East Berlin.

Though it was in effect the same city, with the same people, it was a world apart. The consumer bustle and anarchic freedom of the West gave way to goose-stepping soldiers, hideous artifacts of monumentalist architecture and very few goods in downmarket stores. A few hours there convinced me that, with its many challenges and imperfections, life on the western side was immeasurably better.

The fall of the wall a few weeks later also led to changes here when FW de Klerk, who read the writing on his own wall of apartheid, reckoned the fall of communism removed an immense obstacle in the path forward for South Africa.

So, November 9 1989 is one of those anniversaries that, literally and figuratively, changed the country and the world in which we live today.

Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: