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.
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.