The country is in desperate need of principled leaders who will put the country back on a path of responsible leadership aimed at improving the quality of governance at all levels. (John McCann/M&G)
By: Dr. Paul Kariuki
Last week’s state of the nation address had its fair share of drama. The EFF did exactly as it had promised in the lead-up to the address, and disrupted the president’s speech. The disruption was not a new phenomenon; the party leadership and its members demonstrated once again that they can hold the entire parliament to ransom while making their case known. The public reaction to this incidence was a mixed one. On one hand, some sections of the public applauded the EFF for bringing up heated robustness in parliament. On the other hand, there were those citizens who thought the incidence was unsavory and undermined the decorum that often goes with the state of the nation address program and infringed the rules of parliament. Whilst the freedom of speech is a constitutionally enshrined right to every citizen, none of these viewpoints are wrong. They demonstrate that the public is alive to debate and have the courage to share them in public confidently, one of the signs of a strong democracy. Moreover, robustness in parliament is also a great sign of a maturing democracy and must be supported if the rules of the house are not infringed and where they are, there are channels for remedial action and these need to be followed and enforced by relevant parliament structures.
However, it is important to remember the genesis of this seemingly discomforting robustness. Political parties in South Africa have reached levels of intolerance, with each other over the last decade. The ideological divisions across political parties have continued to generate robustness not just of ideas but also of personalities. This trend will continue into the foreseeable future if our politics will shift from battling ideas to personalities. Whilst it is acknowledged that it is individuals that embody all the above, it is notable that it is easier to respect the rights of others when the exercise of such rights is not provocative or irritating. It is much harder to respect them when such rights oppose one’s political interests and beliefs. All these raise a critical issue about political tolerance as an important characteristic of a maturing democracy where every political party and politician are responsible for promoting such tolerance in society. So, in the light of last week’s disruption in parliament, it is vital to understand that political tolerance in a constitutional democracy is inevitable and must be embraced by all political parties as one of their primary responsibilities in South Africa. As the citizenry prepares for the 2021 local government elections, they need to be educated about the need and importance of exercising political tolerance. This is the responsibility of civil society in partnership with political parties including other key stakeholders such as parliaments themselves as well as the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). It is vital to communicate that political tolerance is not arrogance or a lack of respect for democracy. Although, it is equally important to educate the public that a sense of powerlessness fueled by anger and humiliation can be provocative and may lead to acts of lawlessness that may eventually to the breaking of the law where the rights and freedoms of other people are infringed.
Against this understanding, we do not judge our parliamentary sessions by decorum (though it is important to have one), we judge them by the degree parliamentarians exercise tolerance with each other even when it is difficult to identify with some ideas that a particular party may espouse as a tenet. As such, since tolerance is learned, public representatives are expected to lead by example. This is easier said than done. However, there is no other way but to embrace it as a norm in a constitutional and liberal democracy such as South Africa. If we don’t embrace and cherish political tolerance, we risk suppressing ideas and public debates that are useful in strengthening public confidence in government and their political representatives. So, the key is in balancing the democratic imperatives and obligations of political parties and politicians to live and abide by these imperatives. Otherwise, confrontation and conflicts will always ensue.
In conclusion, I contend that in order to promote and entrench a culture of political tolerance, we must allow dynamic exchanges of opinions and arguments, whereby political representatives and the public at large can learn from one another, get closer to the truth and benefit from useful parliamentary robustness. However, this robustness must not be construed to mean the promotion of unruliness on the part of political parties seemingly aggrieved nor weakness on the part of parliament leadership or the ruling party. The contestation of ideas and divergent viewpoints must never be suppressed as that goes against the ideals of constitutional democracy. The Constitution provides the parameters to be followed by all political parties in their engagement. Any infringement of stated laws constitutes a transgression warranting a remedial action. However, the Constitution also places a duty on the legislature to protect the democratic participation of all political representatives irrespective of their political parties. Democracy is about accepting and respecting the right to differ as well as the acceptance of such differences by all.
Dr. Paul Kariuki is the Executive Director of the Democracy Development Program (DDP) and writes in his personal capacity.