Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The dangers of a two-thirds majority

By James Myburgh

Constitutional change is not the only way in which an overwhelming victory can poison a democracy.

On Friday ANC Today pointedly republished an article by Kgalema Motlanthe - headed A two-thirds majority: the new 'swart gevaar' - that first appeared in the Sowetan on May 11 1998. In an introduction the ANC deputy president writes that the article is worth revisiting because it illustrates that the DA - which has recently raised the danger of the ANC of Jacob Zuma receiving a two-thirds majority - remains "locked in the past; stuck in an era when fear and prejudice was seen as a legitimate political platform."

It is worth going back to the context of that article - for it casts on interesting light on the dangers ‘overwhelming' majorities hold for new democracies. What triggered opposition concern at a two-thirds majority for the ANC were statements Motlanthe himself had made to the Sunday Times the week before.

The ANC was then in the initial stages of bringing all state organs under party control - including those whose independence was supposedly guaranteed by the constitution.

Motlanthe told the newspaper that if the ANC gained a two-thirds majority in 1999 it planned to use it to review the power held by independent watchdog bodies such as the judicial services commission, the auditor general, the attorneys general, and the reserve bank.

The Sunday Times stated, "The call to transform the civil service, an issue discussed at the ANC's NEC last weekend, is the result of growing frustration within the party that, it has been unable to grasp the key levers of power."

In the event, as Motlanthe noted on Friday, the ANC did not change the constitution post-1999 (at least to facilitate this project). But this was not because it had a change of heart on the matter but simply because it was able to simply bypass the relevant constitutional provisions by deploying cadres to head up these institutions (see here.). The mainstream English language press failed to put up any meaningful opposition to this programme at the time.

(It is not quite true that the ANC has never used its two-thirds majority in parliament to change the constitution for nefarious purposes. In 2002 it passed a constitutional amendment to allow floor crossing - something that it did purely to stuff up the opposition. That the DA idiotically went along with that legislation does not negate this fact.)

The lessons of that era are twofold: Firstly, an ‘overwhelming' majority tends to have a quieting effect on civil society, while stoking the hubris and power-hunger of the ruling party. As the political scientist Maurice Duverger noted, if a party's electoral majority is great, its authority is great, "it is not embarrassed by the opposition; it can claim to represent the will of the country." If a ruling party has a two thirds majority this on its own provides a powerful disincentive against going to court to challenge the constitutionality of legislation.

Secondly, a constitution that can effectively be ignored or bypassed does not need to be changed. For example, over the past few years there has apparently been pervasive (and illicit) bugging of private telephone conversations by the security services. Must the ANC be commended for not changing the constitution to allow for such a gross invasion of privacy - or condemned for creating a politicised state able to flout the law with such impunity?

A Jacob Zuma presidency has the potential to be better than many middle class South Africans expect - or much worse. As the Economist put it Zuma certainly has the personal qualities with which to confound the sceptics. But he could equally turn out to be another African ‘Big Man,' a political chief "for whom government is the accumulation of personal power and the dispensation of favours."

This uncertainty about the kind of government South Africa will end up with after April 22 is not helped by the highly contradictory statements of ANC leaders about the intentions of the ruling party. In a speech last year ANC Treasurer General Mathews Phosa said that one of the mistakes the ruling party had made "was to allow a process that resulted in too many casualties of well-meaning, skilful and patriotic experts in the public sector. In addition, the exit of white people from the civil service who had a contribution to make followed an unfortunate course that resulted in a skills vacuum in some areas of the public service." Only last week he re-emphasised this point saying that it was necessary to ensure, "The protection and involvement of minorities in all spheres of life, and the correction of mistakes we made in this regard in the past."

Yet, in an interview published in the Sunday Argus over the weekend the party's secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, promised almost the exact opposite. He said the ANC planned a post-election racial and political purge of the security forces - regardless of the cost. He complained that many of the key people at an operational level were still from the "old order," and relatively few came from MK and APLA: "You have to pay people out now. We know it is expensive to reverse the results of a negotiated settlement. Transformation must be done. It is costly, but it is investment."

Much is going to depend on the size of the ANC's majority. A substantially reduced majority would remove many of the temptations that come from being able to change the constitution at will, would go some way to humbling the ruling party, and would strengthen the morale of civil society. By contrast, yet another overwhelming majority for the ANC would have the opposite effect. It would demoralise the press, the opposition and civil society while providing encouragement to the worst elements and tendencies within the ANC. It would reopen the door to a return to all that went wrong during the Mbeki-era.

7 Opinion(s):

Vince R said...

But at least a 2/3rd majority will ensure "peace" and a reasonable return to hum-drum daily life. Imagine if the ANC victory goes as low as 60% tomorrow. A victory for democracy you would think? Hope for the future? Not at all. Think what a message that would send to the ANC, they would know that their time is up, and within 5 years they could plausibly lose another 15% - It would mean a massive increase in mass rolling action and strikes, murders, necklacing etc. A return to the "collaborator" mentality of the 80's. As things stand, Azania must hope that the ANC comes in with very close to, if not an outright, 2/3rd majority. This is how bad it is, a catch 22, stuffed both ways!

Vanilla Ice said...

True, the "two thirds majority" rhetoric is based on prejudice and fear, and seems to be prima facie evidence of our inability to transform. What Motlanthe, and others, conveniently forget to tell you is how is one expected to arrive at a logical conclusion when our frame of reference is the ANC itself. You base your perception of the future on events and utterances from the past. I don't have to be knocked down by a speeding car to know that walking across a busy street will lead to that eventuality. This doesn't make me irrationally scared of cars, it makes me cautious and forearmed. To blindly ignore the obvious is to suicidally set yourself up for disaster. Motlanthe and his ilk expect blind faith .... much like religion I guess. You must believe because ... well ... you just must.

Joe King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe King said...

The IEC, today on Talk Radio 702, explained the voting procedure of putting an envelope with your X on it, which has no identification on it into another envelope which has your name,id etc. printed or written (didn't get that) on it. This is to control the voters from not voting twice. The problem lies in the fact that the f*cking stupid, illiterate, ignorant masses have been duped into beleieving that the ANC can see where you planted your X because the marked envelope containg the envelope containing your ballot paper has YOUR name on it and if you do not vote ANC, they will find out and get you. F*cking clever trick and no-one says a word or raises any concerns. Its all like la-di-da everythings gonna be alright.

There are only two types of voters currently left in SA. Scared voters and scary voters. Catch 22, i agree, either way we lose. I can understand why the bankers want to starve out the masses, it makes perfect sense to get rid of the garbage.

Would we rather have the poor in charge of managing the earth. The NWO is here and some say it can be stopped, I have my doubts.

Unfortunatley a vast portion of the enlightened population will have to be sacrificed, so a few pale skins on the Southern tip of Africa are not an issue. Keep an open mind. We are in the sh*t. I am sad.

Loggi said...

There are only two types of voters currently left in SA. Scared voters and scary voters.
Priceless Joe!

ThisIsAfrica said...

Well said Vince R.

I feel the same way. By hook or by crook (crook I'll bet) the ANC will get their 2/3rd majority.
They are like a bunch of spoiled brats who will cause a huge amount of trouble if they don't get their way. They are too base and dull to ever see the benefit of working with the White man instead of against him.

I say this as a last resort, but war is the ONLY way these communist parasites will ever be removed.

Anonymous said...

Two-thirds majority!?
They've had it since 2004!

What you really mean to say is:
"two-thirds majority for a party run from New York and London, using White Africans as the scapegoat for all of Africa's problems, was fine, BUT a two-thirds majority under a more "people" oriented ANC IS A BAD THING!
I disagree.

As a White African, I'd rather the Blacks were less racist towards us and more anti-Big Western Business!