Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Merits of Presidential Democracy
John Kane-Berman of the South African Institute of Race Relations writes a solid op-ed piece in the Business Day today where he discusses the merits of direct public voting for presidential candidiates, regardless of party.

His opinion, which I tend to agree with, is that direct voting of this sort will actually diminish accountability and democratic principles, the very characteristics its proponents hope to improve. Kane-Berman writes:
This is where accountability comes in and why parliamentary democracy is preferable to presidential democracy.

The US president, once in office, is virtually untouchable. Congress holds the purse strings and can thwart him in various ways, but he is not accountable to it. Nor is his cabinet. Congress has no means of removing him by a political process but only via the quasi-judicial process of impeachment.

In a parliamentary democracy, by contrast, the executive is directly accountable to, and can at any time be removed by, parliament, as noted in this column a fortnight ago.

For SA to shift to direct presidential election would almost certainly diminish accountability. It could even kill off Parliament as anything but a rubber stamp for legislation written by the executive. Given the critical importance of accountability as an ongoing process, and as part of the day-to-day mechanisms of government, what SA needs is a parliament that is stronger in relation to the executive arm of the government, not weaker.
The problem, naturally, is that our parliamentary strength is not that robust. With the vast majority of Parliamentarians being drawn from the ruling party, and with ANC party lines being so strong, there is little dissent from Parliament.

As Kane-Berman points out, there are two areas that need to improve; Parliamentary strength and provincial democracy strength.

Kane-Berman does make on statement that I don't agree with though:
The issue is complicated by all the noise surrounding the election by the ANC of its president at the end of the year. For the ANC to choose anyone other than Thabo Mbeki would have fascinating consequences, not least because it would be tantamount to a vote of no-confidence in him as president of the country. It would also be fascinating if Mbeki, when his term as president of the country is up, were to remain on as party president.
In my view, this is incorrect commentary. There is a precedent within the ANC, set by Nelson Mandela, that the ANC President gives way to the new annointed President after two terms, thus giving the prospective incoming state President the chance to gather the party and develop policy. When the Eastern Cape branch of the ANC suggested earlier in the year that Mbeki should stay on for the third term as ANC party president, there was much rumbling and consternation amongst other ANC branches. This is not the norm, and to state that not voting in Mbeki for a third party presidential term "would be tantamount to a vote of no-confidence in him as president of the country" is, in my opinion, flawed.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Leon's Clarity
The Mail & Guardian carries a story on some very lucid commentary from exiting DA leader Tony Leon about Thabo Mbeki's 'unnanounced' bit to retain his position as ANC Party President for a third term. Leon commented that another party presidential term for Mbeki would be bad news for democracy in South Africa.
"And if that [new] president tries to be his own man or woman, the real prospect of two centres of national power would be ruinous indeed.

"It would be ruinous, because the state's already faltering capacity would stall further. It would be ruinous because turf wars would break out between these rival camps.

"Worst of all, Mr Mbeki's staying would set a grim precedent: he would undo many of the positive achievements to date of his presidency, playing into the hands of Afro-pessimists, who denounce our continent's leaders for failing to leave office when their time has passed.

"By contrast, what a fine example Nelson Mandela set us when he voluntarily stepped down as party leader in 1997 and as President in 1999. That is the finest precedent this fine president could set us; and that is the precedent I urge Mr Mbeki, in the interests of all South Africans, to emulate."
It's a very important consideration, and one that I think many ignore in the 'anyone-but-Zuma' rush. If Mbeki continued the party presidency, it would undoubtedly create two incredibly strong centres of power, given the structure of party politics in South Africa. As Mbeki says, it will also create an almost indelible perception of his successor being nothing more than a puppet.

Naturally, Mbeki will only feel like he is forced to make this decision should Zuma's populism be seen as a winnable Presidential force. One wonders if Leon would have made these comments unless he feels that the chances of Zuma being a real presidential option are thin. Perhaps he is looking to stir the proverbial pot. I think however, that these are insightful comments from a leader retiring after many years in politics, laying a warning that crosses party boundaries.

I was quite supportive of the strategy when it was mooted, in order for Mbeki to retain control over his successor, but Leon's comments have crystalised a few weeks of internal debate for me. It would be a simple solution for Mbeki-ites to retain his party presidency to retain a vice-like frip, but I'm becoming increasingly convinced that a compromise candidate is a wiser route. The prospects for real delivery being lost in ANC political infighting seem very likely.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Crime stats
Where government falls short, NGO's step in. So it is with crime statistics, where the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention has built an interactive mapping service based on police crime statistics. With the tool, you can easily view your suburb against theft and murder statistics. Macabre perhaps, but interesting.

The tool highlights how murder per population density is actually higher in remote areas than urban areas. Whilst obviously not higher in absolute terms, it shows that it actually 'safer' to be in urban areas than rural in terms of the chances of being murdered in South Africa. Good to know!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Non-story of the Day
To be honest, I'm very confused as to why the media is front-paging Zuma's "admission" that he will accept the ANC presidential nomination if it comes his way.

Come on guys, is this really new information? Did we not know this?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Fork in the Road
Yesterday's terrible shooting at Virginia Tech should be met with a large amount of nazel gazing from American society. The proliferation of freely available, military-grade guns at local stores, coupled with a almost ubiquitous availability of ammunition at retail giants such as Walmart, is simply a recipe for disaster.

Whilst I can understand the roaring trade in hunting rifles and hunting equipment to the NRA crowd, I simply cannot understand the need to freely sell military grade automatic guns and accompanying ammunition. The US is one of the only countries in the world that still allows the sale of high-calibre, rapid fire weaponry to the public. The tolerance and in many cases, celebration of hard weaponry like this makes it infinitely easier for a disgruntled person to take the ultimate revenge on innocents, with some of the most powerful killing weapons available. A complacency seems to have set in where it seems so easy for someone to take revenge with deadly force.

Undoubtedly the gun debate will now rage in the states. NRA campaigners will resist with all their might, and anti-gun campaigners will bay for the complete repealing of gun-friendly laws. The responsible line will lie somewhere in between. One-third of US households contain a gun and hunting is simply too entrenched in the US psyche to make wholesale weapons bans. Hunting rifles will undoubtedly still be allowed, but one would hope that military-grade arms would be restricted at best. It'll be a huge battle, one that is central to American societal views of the constitution and individual rights.

Watch also for the cold reality of presidential candidates jostling to leverage the political opportunities from this. Obama and Edwards will undoubtedly come out swinging, but Hillary's response may be more guarded, given her strategy of wooing more moderate Republicans. The Republican candidates will make placating, compassionate speeches but will probably only make consilitory gestures in terms of gun laws, lest they alienate conservative lobbies and the powerful NRA voting blocks.

All this said, I hope you will join me in sending condolences and prayers to all those affected by this tragedy.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Cosatu's Choice
Quite a weekend for Jacob Zuma. The Sunday Times came out with a front page story declaring that the Cosatu leadership had "dropped" Zuma as their presidential candidate of choice, a claim vociferously denied by the self-same Cosatu leadership.

It's difficult to tell at this stage where the truth lies. However, Vavi over the weekend did state that Cosatu's support for Zuma during "his trials and tribulations" was a separate issue from their 'potential' support of him as their presidential candidate. This would imply some merit to the Sunday Times' story. Cosatu clearly has to play a waiting game to determine whether the NPA will in fact prosecute, but time is running short before the ANC AGM later this year. Given the research studies conducted last year, which claimed only 40% support for Zuma within Cosatu's rank and file, I would place a speculative bet that Cosatu will indeed drop Zuma as their candidate.

Zuma himself addressed a Cosatu conference over the weekend and was transparent in his attempts to get Cosatu to remain in his camp. Zuma called on Cosatu to reclaim some power from Thabo Mbeki, realising the huge danger the centralisation of power around Mbeki plays in his political future. Zuma stated: "All I am saying is that this is the crucial year (ANC conference), when all decisions that we take will be important for long time to come. It is going to be critical what we do about this issue of concentration of power at the policy conference (in July)". Zuma continued throughout his speech to hint toward his 'working masses' credentials and his promises to never 'turn his back' on the working classes.

Whether it will be enough will have to be seen, but one doubts it. The NPA's increasing willingness to bring charges against Zuma again are troubling his allies, and Zuma faces a tough battle for crediblity this year. The populist support for Jacob Zuma remains strong, but the consequences for Cosatu backing the wrong horse for 2009 are significant. Look for Cosatu to adopt a "safety first" strategy.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Let's make it work

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Some good news...
Two pieces of good news came over the weekend, on our economic progress and on crime.

The first was the announcement from Stats SA that the formal sector created 107000 non-farming jobs in the fourth quarter of last year, a result of the strong economic growth over the past few years. Most of these jobs were added in the retail and financial services sectors, and despite the obvious lack of satisfaction from Cosatu, this is a good endorsement for Government's macro-economic policies.

The second was the announcement that the SAPS is likely to start publishing local and regional crime figures. I think this is a grossly belated but critical step in the management of crime in South Africa. First of all, it provides a platform of trust between Government and the people, who have constantly been shown only a secretive policy on crime. Secondly, it gives NGO's and ordinary South Africans an idea of real increases in crime, thus hopefully going some way to dispel perceptions problems. Finally - and most importantly - information is critical in fighting crime. Finding shifts in crime patterns and determining antecedents can make a real difference, as highlighted during Guilianni's mayoral terms with his extensive use of Comptroller data.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Armscor Report
I suppose that asking apartheid behemoth Armscor to suddenly change its spots was just simply too much to ask. The Business Day reported yesterday on a confidential report detailing how Armscor flooded the private US arms market with hundreds of millions of rounds of surplus small arms ammunition between 1997 and 2005, in direct conflict with government policy.

With SA supposedly being a leader in the crackdown of small arms proliferation in Africa and the world, this is a real stab in the back from Armscor. The forensic report was initially called for by defence secretary January Masilela, who had heard rumblings about 'irregularities' within Armscor, and it turns out that the ammunition sales were not the only dodgy deals they were into. Armscor has been going through a very rough time of late, and with the recent loss of the Rooivalk deal with Turkey, this is just the latest in a series of embarrassing defeats and blunders by the arms manufacturer.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Nothing to hide?
As of yesterday, Jacob Zuma is that much closer to being prosecuted by the NPA around allegations of graft in the arms deal. A judge yesterday ruled that the state is able to access documents held by court injunction by Mauritian authorities, which include originals of the Thint documents, and CEO Alain Thetard's diary. The diary includes entries of meetings between Zuma, Shaik and Thint, which are central to the state's case.

Zuma has stated that he will appeal the decision. One imagines that he has to, given his political aspirations. However, Zuma is sitting between a rock and a hard place in terms of the timing of the state's prosecution. He has to challenge all legal rulings in attempting to postpone any prosecution decisions until after the AGM, but in that scenario, will he find support of ANC moderates if he may yet be charged? On the other hand, if he opens himself up, surrenders all information (assuming he's innocent) and lets the state prosecute him, he would undoubtedly be under that cloud during the AGM anyway, which would again dent his presidential hopes. Either way, he's in trouble.

That being said, and given that the AGM - although critically important as a bell-weather of support - may not decide the 2009 president, it would be advantageous for Zuma to challenge the state to find him guilty and present himself as an innocent man wrongfully accused, this time opening the way for prosecution instead of blocking it. But one has the sneaky suspicion (with Shabir Shaik's trial in mind) that Zuma does in fact have something to hide. And that, clearly, is the issue...

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Pity the fools...
It's pretty indicative of the pathetic state of the SADC's governance influence when a conference largely concerned with resolving the Zimbabwean situation allows Mugabe to crow of the 'total support' of SADC states. Mugabe triumphantly and gleefully announced at a rally over the weekend:
“We got full backing. Not even one [of the member states] criticised our actions ... There is no country in SADC that can stand up and say Zimbabwe has faulted. SADC does not do that, it is not a court but an organisation of 14 countries that co-operate with each other and support each other.”
Whilst I'm pretty sure Mugabe was using poetic license in the stretch that no SADC states found no fault with him, it's even more pathetic that not one statement has been released by any member state condemning his comments.

Chris Maroleng of the ISS has argued that there were discussions and even a dressing down of Mugabe at the conference, but if you allow him to make such statements refuting this, what surely is the point? Even more hopelessly optimistic, Shadrack Gutto, head of the Centre for African Renaissance Studies at the University of South Africa said yesterday, "What Zimbabwe has called an internal matter is now being handled at a regional level. To that extent, it is a major breakthrough". If that's what were celebrating these days, it is sad indictment on what we call progress.

After the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs' recent comments chastising Mugabe, there was much hope that this conference could lay some foundation for change. But... nothing. Farewell SADC's credibility. Farewell SADC's influence as a force of democracy. And unfortunately we may as well say, farewell NEPAD. Mbeki's African Renaissance is in danger of unraveling, not north of Southern Africa as we may have suggested, but right here, at home.