Tuesday, February 17, 2009



By Mondli Makhanya
Feb 14, 2009

Did our MPs speak up when civil servants failed to deliver services, when public hospitals fell apart?
During the state of the nation address in parliament last week, President Kgalema Motlanthe repeatedly returned to the theme of “our nation is in a good state”.

He spoke about how South Africa was able to weather “whatever economic storms may pound our shores. .. (and) whatever political uncertainties may visit our collective consciousness”.

“We may even say that, in a strange quirk of fate, many aspects of our constitutional order have been tested in the recent past, and every one of them has passed the test to reveal a democracy that is exceptionally resilient.”

He told the joint sitting of the house of assembly and the national council of provinces that “our democracy is healthy. .. steadily growing stronger, underpinned by a constitution hardly equalled in the world.”

That was the feel-good part in a workmanlike speech that was largely devoid of inspiration.

But that bit about the health of our democracy was one worth treasuring. He was stretching the point a bit. Our democracy works, but to call it “healthy” was a bit ambitious. But I’m glad he did, because we do aspire to a healthy democracy.

Motlanthe was speaking just two weeks before the dissolution of South Africa’s third democratic parliament.

When they break this week to prepare for the general election, the honourable members will shower themselves with great praise, speak of the great strides made in the past 15 years of democracy and give glowing speeches about the achievements of the post-2004 parliament. There will be mind-numbingly boring speeches and fiery electioneering rhetoric. There will be emotional farewells from those not returning to the house. Then it will be over for the class of 2004.

The orderly dissolution will be a tribute to the democracy that we have built. For, in all our depression, negativity and cynicism, there is one thing that we should appreciate and not take for granted: that we are a functioning democracy.

And it is that which enables us to scream at our rulers and tell them what we think. We have a democratic infrastructure in this country that enables us as citizens to view the governors as equals and not as lords.

They may not listen most of the time, but the fact of the matter is that they cannot shut us up.

As someone remarked recently, the one thing that we are all united around is the fact that we are proud to be a democracy and that we want to always be a democracy. That is a status few South Africans want to compromise.

We know and take it for granted that every five years there will be free and fair elections. The process conducted by the Independent Electoral Commission will be above board and there will be no post-election cries of vote-rigging.

It is an expected routine that days after election day, thousands will gather at the Union Buildings to witness the inauguration of a president. That the president will stand before the chief justice and pledge “to obey, observe, uphold and maintain the constitution and all other laws of the republic”. (Although, I must say, I wonder how the incoming guy will recite this part with straight face. But let’s leave that for another day.)

This may seem a trite and obvious statement to many, considering that we are in election time anyway. But there are many countries in the world that carry the tag “democratic” and hold elections, and yet are the furthest from it.

The only question we need to ask ourselves is how strong the democracy is — whether it is indeed as resilient as Motlanthe describes it.

When the honourable members leave for home on Thursday, they should ask themselves some serious questions about their tenure.

Was this parliament the voice of the people that it was designed to be? Was it the people’s watchdog and bulwark against executive excess and incompetence?

Did our MPs speak up for the poor when civil servants failed to deliver services, when public hospitals fell apart and pensions were not paid to the rural aged?

Did they make sure that they properly exercised their authority in appointing credible individuals to boards of independent constitutional institutions? Did they take the cancer of corruption seriously enough?

The parliamentarians have to question their complicity in allowing the entrenchment of the 1999-2008 imperial presidency they now so openly despise. Did they do enough — using the power vested in them by the constitution — to protect South Africa’s democracy from executive incursion into other tiers of governance?

A further question is whether they would deign to use that power to prevent executive incursion by a future presidency, or whether they would cower as they did in the past.

These questions are also questions that prospective MPs should be asking themselves as they prepare for new lives as public representatives.

For South Africa to grow into the “healthy democracy” which Motlanthe boasts we already are, parliamentarians have to treat the institution with respect. They must see it as voice of the people and not a place of employment.