Mon 23 Jun 2014
By Mukoni Ratshitanga
The debate on the State of the Nation address in the national assembly last week illustrated concerns and evinced valuable lessons and reminders which our public representatives across the party political divide ought to be attentive.
The endless points of order, genuine and some not, interjections and heckles clearly intended to stop opponents from putting their views across, communicated a message of a dangerously partisan political class whose capacity to address national challenges seemed somewhat doubtful.
Members of Parliament appeared inadvertently to be inaugurating a convention which consists in slapping the rule book at opponents even on matters of opinion, interpretation and fair comment rather than debating. As this ensued, the phrase makers in the social media space lamented, rightly or wrongly, the dawn of an era of “parliamentary procedural totalitarianism”.
Whereas heckling, procedural manoeuvres and petty point scoring are a global norm and can, at times be entertaining, they do not promote the reflection required to overcome our enormous national challenges.
Few would contend the proposition that beyond its own self-interest, every party represented in parliament is obliged to meditate over its responsibility in the promotion and sustenance of the integrity of national institutions, including parliament. Put differently, public representatives as with all sections of society’s leadership, should, by force of good example, avoid conduct which questions the very proposition of multi-party democracy and thus cause citizens to doubt its utility.
Implicit in this, perhaps misguided, idealism is that in an electoral (party) system such as ours, parties must, the further we move away from 1994, increasingly put forward MPs with the commitment, intellectual, skills, moral, and other attributes that strengthen the nation to address its challenges. That there were less than a handful memorable responses to the State of the Nation address (Sona) across the party political divide, with the veteran Pallo Jordan’s as the only tour de force, might suggest the need for an examination of the pedigree of the public representative required for our challenges.
In the parliamentary arena, some parties will soon have to learn that an experienced opponent, especially one with members more than theirs, can marshal parliamentary procedures to render it practically impossible for those given to superlatives to put across a single sentence. This is an invaluable lesson of qualification and nuance in the advancement of one’s argument; one with which those who have been sued for defamation are familiar.
Yet another lesson is that if the graves are full of indispensable people, those that have thought of themselves as more Catholic than the Pope, or at least acted the part, often ended achieving little if at all to the detriment of their supporters and sometimes society. Seemingly revolutionary but unsustainable positions do attract media headlines and trend the social media space. But much harm in terms of a party’s credibility and breeding cynicism in politics and politicians among the electorate awaits the day life exposes these for the grandstanding that they are.
They may come to understand that for both young and old, there is a thin line between militancy and what might, in the eyes of society, come across as unbecoming conduct.
They might also learn a valuable lesson of credibility from the Tshivenda idiomatic expression of which I am sure there are equivalents in all our languages: “A huna nnda. A huna gayi. Ndi zwilumi zwothe” — There is no distinction between the tick “nnda” and its fellow traveller “gayi”. They are all (infectious) blood suckers!
The misgivings and colourful language employed to describe some dress codes in parliament partly reflect the imprecise and vexing measurement tools by which militancy and bad conduct as with all things social are appraised.
Granted, there is hardly anything universal about parliamentary dress code. Nigerian parliamentarians dress differently from ours.
Social and institutional dress codes are the outcome of the totality of a society’s historical evolution. They have not always been the same nor will they remain as they presently are.
In the 1960s for example, the university was a conservative place were students and academics alike were required to dress in suites and ties. That is no longer the case today.
Perhaps the starting point is acceptance of the fact that society is composed of conservative and progressive-minded people alike. Each school of thought will seek to impose its values upon social institutions and society as a whole. As with all areas of our social life, the challenge for a democracy is to promote a dialogue that eschews dichotomies, appreciating the situation as it exists and not as we wish it to be.
Parties will also have to be cognisant of the distance between rhetoric and substance as a double-edged sword that has troubled governing and opposition parties alike for a long time. Politics are about attracting supporters as they are about sustaining support through substance.
At the same time, whether they agree with each another or not, parties cannot but appreciate the validity of concerns about our country’s unfinished business which are being variously narrated by each of them and the population as a whole. They would do well critically to reflect on the menace of the party line, the unhelpful postures which suggest that: “If you don’t agree with us, therefore you are wrong.” or “It is correct because we say so.”
The world witnessed this kind of thinking (“you’re either with us or against us”) in George Bush and Tony Blair’s medieval bellicose forays into Iraq and Afghanistan in the opening years of this century and it is from it that the two countries and their neighbourhood will weep and gnash their teeth for decades to come.
To avoid the self-imposed destructive manifestations of a localised variant of the Bush-Blair doctrine, however uniquely it might ramify, not only requires that all parties accept that none of them holds the monopoly of wisdom, but that the people of South Africa matter more than each one of our political parties.
But such is the intensity of the contest that otherwise peacefully rested local and international political figures, some of whom others in our country and elsewhere would rather they are eternally forgotten, are being usurped and invoked. For political entrepreneurs in and of outside parliament, the challenge is to avoid needless anxiety and expediency of the sort which would not only make differentiation between a variety of infectious blood sucking ticks impossible, but most importantly, distinction between ticks and veterinarians; a strange unity of opposites.
In the end, we hardly need reminder of the primary contradiction of South African society from which none of us should take off our eyes, ie addressing the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. Parties will have to privilege politics; in all its strategic and tactical elements.
Mukoni Ratshitanga is an assistant to former president Thabo Mbeki. He writes here in his personal capacity. Originally published on Thought Leader: http://m.thoughtleader.co.za/readerblog/2014/06/23/mps-behaviour-eating-away-at-parliaments-credibility/?wpmp_switcher=true