7 November 2012
When I saw the TimesLIVE photograph of Premier Zille leading the Democratic Alliance in a march to President Zuma’s Nkandla homestead, I had a visceral reaction. To some, outrage might have been caused by Zille’s finger-pointing, or the gross abuse of state resources symbolised by the police line blocking her delegation’s access to a public road.
My own reaction however was triggered by the Premier’s hat – one of those fine Cape Union Mart specimens that many of us Capetonians use on camping holidays and hikes up the Cape mountains.
With the image of the Premier and that hat in front of me, all I could see was the caricature of the ‘white party’ wagging its finger at the ‘black government’ about ‘their’ corrupt rural homesteads out in the African sun. Instead of seeing another attempt by the ruling party to avoid scrutiny, I could see only the puzzling way that the DA engages in national politics. Ultimately, whether it is a publicity stunt, as a number of commentators and editorials argue, is less important than the broader manner of political engagement that it represents. It points to a confused and contradictory version of ‘opposition’ that is used on an ever increasing basis – no matter how harmful it may be to the cause of accountability or how much it deflects attention from the key issues.
In Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s acclaimed novel The Wizard of the Crow, the nameless ‘Ruler’, at the behest of ‘the people’, decides to build an enormous structure in his home town. It would be called ‘Marching to Heaven’ and it would be like the ‘Tower of Babel’, only bigger and better. According to Ruler’s Foreign Affairs Minister, only then could Ruler ‘be the daily recipient of God’s advice, resulting in a rapid growth of [the country] to the heights never before dreamt by humans.’
It is quite the prescient parable. South Africans have recently been treated to tales of equally bizarre acts of hubris: According to reports, the renovations to the President’s private residence will cost more than R200 million and are replete with underground bunkers and soccer fields. The presidency recently enlisted Apartheid-era legislation to try and convince that it is a National Key Point and therefore beyond public scrutiny.
Faced with what appears to be our very own Marching to Heaven, the Premier descended on Nkandla armed with a party delegation and the media. Police blocked a public road and physically prevented the delegation from entering the area. Whatever the merits of the ‘inspection’, this is a flagrant abuse of state power on behalf of the ruling party that must be roundly condemned.
Nevertheless, how this ‘inspection’ was supposed to advance accountability remains unclear. For some time I’ve tried to understand what it is that drives the DA to do things like this – actions which are so politically naïve they invariably serve to damage the very accountability they supposedly desire.
The DA’s notion of the ‘opportunity society’ is painstakingly laid out across its policy proposals and vision statements. Yet, in its public and political engagement the drive to create ‘opposition’ appears far more prominent than that of its official ideology. ‘Opposition’ has become the catchphrase, the answer to all of South Africa’s problems. Repeatedly, party leaders propose that the only salvation for South Africa currently is ‘opposition’. It serves as the party’s core framing device far more than the ‘opportunity society’. It would appear that ‘opposition’, to the DA, under all thinkable circumstances, has become the only available truth and course of action.
While the DA is the official parliamentary opposition and the governing party in Cape Town and the Western Cape, it does not have the electoral strength to impact national politics to the extent that it would wish. Recently, the Premier called for such a unified opposition of smaller political parties, joining together with no common ground other than disdain for the ruling ANC. Though she called this ‘constitutionalism’, it may be that she hadn’t read the manifestos of a number of these parties as thoroughly as she should have. It is unclear in any event how such an opposition could function, and indeed how it would escape the trappings of the fatal combination of ‘broad church’ party politics and an electoral system that gives ultimate power to party leaders – both of which keep the ANC in perpetual policy paralysis and remove accountability mechanisms from electoral politics almost entirely.
With neither an electoral majority on its own, nor a coalitional majority, the party has created a bastardised version of ‘opposition’ – something which attempts to straddle electoral politics and the pretence of being akin to a social movement fighting for constitutional rights and accountability, of which Nkandla is only the latest example.
But there are consequences. In the case of Nkandla, the DA’s antagonistic posturing serves only to aid a stronger coalescence around the President. It also obscures bona fide opposition to corruption and unaccountable governance by providing ample opportunity and the necessary justification for the ruling party to deflect attention and cast it all off as dirty party politics.
This straddling has likewise led the DA on numerous occasions to try and appropriate mass protests through party branding, such as those directed against the Secrecy Bill. This casts citizens who are not part of a party in government into a party political tug of war, where the stakes are entirely different, perverting their fight for social justice, and diluting their power.
In the City of Cape Town, Premier Zille’s refusal to include the City’s Metro Police and Law Enforcement in the currently underway Commission of Inquiry into Policing in Khayelitsha, is another opportunity sacrificed for the sake of opposition to national government. A process that is meant to ensure accountability and the rule of law is now treated by both sides as just so much politicking.
The DA has the potential to improve national and local accountability. What it needs is some self-reflection that considers the actual consequences of the party’s actions and some of the many ways in which a political party that is in government can achieve its goals without trying to straddle inherently conflicting political positions. This will include re-defining itself as ‘for something’ rather than simply ‘against everything’, and consequently deciding just what kind of opposition it is or wants to be. Perhaps it may even want to be an alternative rather than an opposition. The Premier should also be wary of bringing that unseemly hat into politics. Save it for the next trip up the West Coast, it’s a scorcher up there this time of year.