Friday, October 17, 2008

Feedback: Is our democracy under threat?

Last Thursday the 9th of October 2008 saw an esteemed panel speaking at the Wits Great Hall on some of the difficulties facing our young democracy. Topics included the status of party politics, the independence of the judiciary and the role of tertiary education institutions in society.
  1. George Bizos – Senior Advocate and Human Rights Lawyer;
  2. Patricia de Lille – Leader of the Independent Democrats;
  3. Prof. Yunus Ballim – Vice Principal and Deputy vice-chancellor;
  4. Prince Mashele – Political Analyst from the Institute of Security Studies;
  5. Gwede Mantashe – ANC Secretary General.


George Bizos

1.) Prof. Tawana Kupe, the invigilator, started the discussion by asking George Bizos about the recent attacks on the judiciary. Is the judiciary under siege or is there justified criticism being leveled against it?

"I believe that we have a legitimate judiciary in a democratic country in which the rule of law prevails.", Bizos said. "Whether the ANC is a threat to democracy. My answer is a qualified 'no'."

Bizos went on to say that the judiciary has largely transformed and that the majority of the judges on the bench today would not have been able to practice under apartheid.

However, he noted that political cases put a lot of strain on the judiciary and that current political cases will inevitably divide people. In this context it is inevitable that "incautious statements" will be made. Bizos referred to one particular instance where a COSATU official in K-ZN stated that "no judge in the country could give Zuma a fair trial."

Citing this example and others, Bizos noted that "young and old" used intemperate language, but subsequently withdrew their statements claiming that they were taken out of context and were actually figurative expressions. This statement elicited much laughter in the Great Hall. Bizos continued by saying that Zwelinzima Vavi came out and stated that the above official's comments weren't reflective of COSATU's position and Kgalema Motlanthe defended the courts even before he assumed the presidency.

Bizos, who acted on many occasions as council to Nelson Mandela, drew on the example set by the former president when he was subpoenaed to appear in court for a case involving the education department. This was the first case that the ANC government lost since coming to power in 1994. Although Madiba's legal advisers told him that he was under no obligation to subject himself to cross-examination he insisted that he go before the court as he wanted to show how not even the president was above the law.

This is a tradition that Mbeki upheld and Bizos hoped would continue under Motlanthe and future ANC Presidents.


Patricia de Lille

2.) Next up was Patricia de Lille, leader of the Independent Democrats, who spoke broadly about the role of the opposition in a democracy. Even though the opposition are divided there are lots of ways of holding the governing party to account, she claimed in her punchy address.

"I didn't need a million people to support me. I've taken this government to court five times and won." she said, referring to the sovereign power of the Constitution, which she used as her "guideline for all political engagement."

"This country belongs to all of us; not just the ANC. One of the principles we fought for was equality before the law. Comrades who fought in the trenches seem to have forgotten this principle."

She accused the opposition of opportunism in supporting the ANC breakaway, saying that one minute they were bemoaning the ubiquity of parties in the country, the next they were welcoming the new splinter faction.


Yunus Ballim

3.) Prof Yunus Ballim opened by stating that his "point of entry into this discussion is academic freedom and institutional autonomy. I consider a good university to be part of the custodians of democracy. This is a role on par with the judiciary and the free press." In this sense, he said "Threats to higher education amount to threats to democracy."

Prof. Ballim drew attention to three Bills currently undergoing tabling in parliament, one of which being the Higher Education Amendment Bill. These put all manner of restrictions on higher education authorities, restricting academic freedoms and imposing heavy punitive measures for non-compliance.

Ballim attacked the legislation as being the work of naive people and something that the National Party would have been proud to produce, which caused much uncomfortable murmurs in the audience. "This is the stuff of a government that is concerned about the unpredictable nature of democracy. One must ask, is predictability desirability?"

"It is an instrumentalist view of higher education as being in the service of the state. These bills create new problems. These Bills represent an unquestionable shove towards mediocrity." he said.


Prince Mashele

3.) Prince Mashele made the point that democracy is not about replacing Thabo Mbeki with Kgalema Motlanthe. It is bigger than these men and us, he remarked. "It's about the institutions that underpin them. As long as you don't touch the institutions that's fine."

Mashele used the examples of Zimbabwe as well as Kenya to illustrate how fragile democracy can be in the absence of durable institutions. The problem with the Kenyan case, Mashele noted, was that nobody trusted the judiciary. When a simple electoral conflict occurred and the issue was referred to the courts, it was unable to be resolved without the resort to violence.

That is why when people such as Julius Malema or Gwede Mantashe make utterances which are quoted "out of context" potential exists to erode the credibility of public institutions.

Mashele urged South Africans to use their imaginations to avoid future crisis. "I have confidence in South Africans," he smiled "they will tame the vagaries of the irresponsible lovers of power."


Gwede Mantashe

4.) Gwede Mantashe found the forum questions very strange indeed. In the first, 'Are we witnessing a calculated and systematic assault on our democracy?' there is a focus on our democracy. "Who is this our?", he asked. His feeling was that it implicitly excludes the ANC. The second, 'Is institutional independence under threat from the ANC?' and finally 'Or is all this alarmist sensationalism and political hot air in a pre-election year?'

"These questions assume that the ANC poses a threat to democracy rather than a hope. A threat to who?" Mantashe asked. "The conclusion is that it is a threat to the acclaimed custodians of these values." he said, referring to elitist groups who take it upon themselves to speak for the democratic will of the people, to the exclusion of the majority party.

"What are these questions based on? Are they based on facts or impressions? The real question we should be asking is whether the ANC as a liberation movement is under siege."

Rather, Mantashe argued "the ANC will pose the least threat to democracy. We do not want to be spectators in the theatre of change around us."

On the criticism of inner democracy within the organisation, there is no bigger example of this than the project to save the movement from elitist control as what happened in Polokwane, Mantashe said. "To reclaim the movement - that is inner democracy!"

On the hullabaloo caused by his 'counter-revolutionary judiciary' remarks in June, Mantashe countered that the Mail & Guardian journalists had distorted his words to suit their agenda, conflating comments about the opposition with comments on the judges. [For a response to these accusations see the article by Frans Kruger, the M&G's ombud. 'You said it, Mantashe.']

The ANC Secretary General also argued that calls for a direct presidential system to replace the party list system would be a panacea. He cited the example of Zimbabwe, which has a directly elected president (and a man who's been in power forever). Manthashe also remarked how the National Party had gerrymandered the constituency system to secure victory when they didn't enjoy a majority of the electorate's support. He suggested that this should be avoided.


  1. I left this seminar early for another engagement so I didn't catch the bulk of the Q&A session at the end.

    Did I miss anything juicy?

  2. Thanks for reporting this. I wish payed for SA journalists would be so diligent!