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Sunday, May 11, 2014

ELECTION WEEK at the IEC (pics) and what it means for parliament

Gwede Mantashe speaks to the media on the open floor of the IEC centre

Zuma does a victory walkabout at the centre before the results are out, greeting rivals including Bantu Holomisa
The EFF dazzled in red at the IEC centre
Terror Lekota eats a hat after the dismal performance of his party, Cope

Miss Teen SA (yes) rocks up at the IEC centre. 


The elections results now out, the focus shifts to whether new MPs will add some muscle to parliament, which is perceived to have become increasingly lame and lacklustre in the past decade.

The MPs who will be make up the National Assembly include 249 ANC members (down from 264,) 89 Democratic Alliance representatives (up from 67) and 25 members from the Economic Freedom Fighters. A number of other rats and mice parties make up the 400 seats.

Robust, relevant parliament

An overriding challenge is for MPs to overcome innate structural flaws ‘’which tend to give the ruling party and its bosses an undue amount of power”, political analyst Richard Calland writes in his book “The Zuma Years”.
It was likely that the ANC – which was returned to power with a majority vote for the fifth time - would conduct itself in pretty much the same manner as before, said Calland during an interview at the weekend.
However, the potential for a more robust, relevant parliament was possible now that the main opposition party, the DA, had increased its share of the vote. “The DA, with more MPs, can spread themselves more thickly across the various portfolio committees and have more oversight”.
The impact of newcomers the EFF, the third biggest party, was unknown. Will they move beyond a ‘’noisy sound bite approach”, or organise themselves more seriously to navigate the painstaking terrain of complex parliamentary structures, he asked.  
The EFF would need to take ‘’strategic decisions’’ on which of the many portfolio committees to focus on. However, a single MP who was committed to the job could make a big impact.  For example, the DA’s David Maynier fought doggedly for transparency and answers in issues around defence and national security during the fourth parliament.  ‘’He was effective in an oversight role and in holding ministers to account because he used parliament committees, he dug deep for information and tabled difficult questions.’’
The key for an effective, accountable and transparent parliament was whether it could respond to the important political issues of the day. The pressing issue was job creation, and an immediate test for the new parliament was how it responded to the Nkandla saga - unfinished business from the fourth parliament, said Calland.

Business as usual

Political analyst Steven Friedman predicted it would be business as usual after May 21. “The ANC is returning with only a few less members. There will be a few more voices with one key new entrant, the EFF. This will bring more noise from MPs dressed in red overalls, making things literally and figuratively more colourful.”
However, the EFF’s lack of experience in parliamentary affairs could limit their effectiveness. “It is one thing to be on the campaign trail. Parliamentary business is hard work. It entails asking hard questions and reading documents.’’
Speaking from the floor of the IEC results centre in Pretoria, Friedman cautioned that there had been some “alarmist” responses to parliament’s handling of Nkandla, when the ANC used delaying tactics to stall a parliamentary process established to scrutinise the R246 million upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s homestead. “Any ruling party in a parliamentary system in the world, who is fighting a corruption scandal will use their majority to kick the ball into touch. This is not unusual.”
The very fact that the ANC chose to delay the debate illustrated that parliament was a powerful, relevant institution, he said.
But at the end of the day, Friedman said it was unrealistic to expect vigorous oversight in a system where representatives were not directly elected by voters. ‘’ As long as you have a system where MPs are dependent on party leadership to be selected, you will have weak oversight.’’
By far the biggest challenge for parliament was the gap between formal politics and marginalised communities. ‘’Politicians, both from the ruling party and the opposition, are good at making speeches, but they need to listen and acquaint themselves with what is going on the ground.’’

Missing Mandela era

Leader of the Freedom Front Plus, Pieter Mulder, does not expect much change.  Mulder, among a handful veterans who has been in parliament since 1994, said that the ANC remained dominant and could still use their majority vote to ram through legislation, as they did with the Protection of State Information Bill.
Mulder, who has been Agriculture Deputy Minister, misses the early days of post-apartheid South Africa when Nelson Mandela was president. “Mandela would consult parties, he would compromise and negotiate behind the scenes in the best interests of South Africa. That atmosphere has now gone. The ANC has become arrogant.’’
“Our experience is that once in parliament, the ANC gets instructions from Cabinet. MPs do what cabinet tells them.”
The DA had not helped either, he said, adopting a “tit-for-tat’ style’’ instead of cooperating with other parties.
But he agreed with Calland power could lie with individuals. For example, the late Helen Suzman had demonstrated during the apartheid era that it was possible to make a difference as a lone opposition MP. However, Mulder felt that experience and knowledge of parliamentary process was dynamite. “If you don’t have members with experience, you are wasting your time.’’

Activist parliament

ANC parliamentary spokesperson Moloto Mothapo brushed aside criticism that parliament was at risk of losing relevance. The 2009 parliament was ushered in as an “activist parliament” he said, where all MPs were tasked with playing an oversight role over the executive “without fear or favour’’. There was always room for improvement, he acknowledged. “Any MP will be doing a disservice to his or her constituency if he or she does not take their job seriously”. Parliament consisted of multiple parties, all of which needed to work together to make the institution effective, powerful and accountable, he added.
On May 21, 400 MPs will be sworn in to this pillar of democracy with high expectations from the electorate.
·*An edited version of this article appeared in Rapport on 11 May.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

I had my first article published in Afrikaans this week, in Die Burger and Beeld - on the eve of the country's fifth general elections. 

This is before the translation.
The faces of Jacob Zuma, Helen Zille, Julius Malema and other party leaders look worn and weathered on street poles – a sign that the time for bluster is over.
It is time for them to take a backseat and for voters to do the talking in the most significant election since our historic poll 20 years ago.
The weathered look extends to leaders and party campaigners who have breathlessly campaigned through big cities and small towns all year. They have vied for media space – not always successfully - with the sensational Oscar Pistorius trial. They have serenaded voters and hit out at opponents at rallies, on social media, in debates, and even in the court room during the rumbustious buildup to Wednesday’s fifth general elections.
Their campaigning done, politicians’ hands are tied as millions of voters head to the sanctity of the polling booth to make their cross at one of about 22 000 voting stations around the country.
Among the more than 25 million registered voters, I will join the queue with my tattered green bar-coded ID. I feel a great sense of occasion that my 18-year-old son, Tyler, will also stand in line with his crisp ID book which he collected from home affairs in the nick of time.
In truth, Tyler may not have made the effort to register if I hadn’t persisted. Like others from the “born free” generation, he can relate to the disconnect that the youth in all communities feel about political parties.  Encouraging him, I reminded him of the saying: “if you think you are too small to make a difference, you have never spent a night in bed with a mosquito.”
While Tyler may not be as committed about voting, he has no doubt about who to vote for. Not influenced by sentimentality, nostalgia or a sense of obligation to a particular party, he has decided to vote for the party that he – and his peers – relate to most.
I am among an estimated 10% of voters this year who are undecided, according to the latest Ipsos poll. I have felt conflicted. Twenty years after freedom, innocence is lost. It is easy to feel disappointment and outrage at the current crop of leaders. But it would be hypocritical to sit on the sidelines. Withdrawing does nothing for the democratic process, only adding fuel to the doomsayers who believe South Africa is on the verge of a failed state.
Like millions of South Africans - 79% of adults according to an HSRC poll - I feel obliged to vote.  The HSRC observed that this was an encouraging finding “that sets us apart from more mature democracies in Europe and North America, where there has been a diminishing sense of electoral duty in recent decades”.
Everyone who voted in 1994 will recall their sense of wonderment. In the build-up to these elections, I travelled through rural towns as a freelance journalist in a 1973 VW Combi. A time before cellphones, we were equipped with a laptop, fax machine and generator. On April 27, there was no voters roll, no need to register beforehand. I joined the winding queue along a dirt road at Waterval Farm School near Van Reenen in the Free State.  Aged 28, I was a “virgin voter”. At the station, first-time voters, “many colourfully dressed in thick blankets and woollen caps, arrived on the back of tractors, in cattle trucks and on horses. Men and women formed separate queues as they patiently waited in the chilly morning,” I wrote in City Press at the time.
Twenty years after freedom, it will still be a moving experience to stand in line, and to make my selection from the eclectic line-up of political parties – 29 on the national ballot.
On Wednesday night, exhausted leaders and party organisers will gather under one roof at the IEC nerve centre in Pretoria as results filter through overnight. Similar gatherings will take place in the 9 provinces. There will surely be a measure of camaraderie as South Africa achieves another milestone in our multi-party democracy, a democracy that depends on an engaged electorate and an accountable government with a robust opposition.
On May 21, ruling party and opposition party members will be sworn at the first sitting of the fifth parliament. Days later, the president – certainly to be majority party ANC leader Jacob Zuma – will be inaugurated. Thereafter, the real challenge begins in parliament and provincial legislatures. The new team – some old faces, some new, some good, some bad - will be tasked with stopping the decay and honouring Nelson Mandela’s legacy. If politicians work together and invest the same voomah into their day job as they did on the campaign trail, then our votes were treated with the respect they deserved. But if they trample on them, real trouble lies ahead.
·        Heard is parliamentary editor at Media 24

Footnote: Today, I voted in Harmony in Central Pretoria. It took 50 minutes from start to finish (see pix). Tyler voted in Lakeside, Cape Town. It took him a few minutes.