MEDIA STATEMENT BY THE
INKATHA FREEDOM PARTY
Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Weekly Newsletter to the Nation
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
Opposition is the toughest job in politics everywhere. From the start one is disadvantaged. Opposition parties have lost the election and are destined for a period of at least four to five years shadow boxing the government.
Governments set the agenda; announce targets; unveil programmes and are largely free to manage the news coverage of government business. Being in opposition, by contrast, means usually been forced onto the back foot; responding to events rather than being weather makers.
The word ‘opposition’ itself is loaded with gladiatorial connotations. Confrontation is inferred. Seizing the initiative often means waiting for the government to stumble or exposing some scandal or irregularity. The former Chairperson of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA), for example, which uncovered vital evidence pertaining to the corrupt arms deal, was a former IFP MP. Opposition MP’s usually make names for themselves as exposés, rather than as opinion makers.
It is hard to think of an example of when any opposition party has really captured the public imagination with a unique idea or selling point, to use marketing language, since 1994.
And too often the opposition’s participation in policy debates is impeded by the unrelenting ruling-party’s spin-doctors parody that the opposition is, at best, an annoying interference or at worst, unpatriotic, as the government rolls out its meritorious programmes.
Even worse, the opposition here has failed to find a common voice on at least one or two issues. Our efforts have been fragmented and lacking in strategic finesse. Tony Leon’s brave attempts to "unite" the opposition fell on deaf ears. My call in 2004, after the dismal performance of the opposition in the general election, for a conference on the role of the opposition was met with a deafening silence.
The rare exceptions have been a few joint opposition rallies against floor-crossing and a once off joint press conference last year on the time allocated to opposition speakers in the debate on the tenth anniversary of the adoption the Constitution. Again, this is reactive, in the moment stuff, not proactive.
In common with other African democracies, we lack a tradition of developing issue-based campaigns that define many Western democracies and bring a new life into their stale political environments. It is no good for the opposition to continue to feebly lay all the blame on a dominant ruling party for preventing the emergence of a responsive opposition.
A good start would be if opposition leaders started meeting in a structured manner to discuss the issues of the day – even if we differ widely. I enjoy excellent relations with DA leader, Tony Leon (I look forward to developing an equally rewarding relationship with his successor), and cordial relations with the other opposition party leaders.
But we have not developed the habit of meeting regularly to consider if and how we should respond to the events of the day. The result, at best, is half a dozen press releases from opposition party’s that might gain a line or two in the newspaper. Our role is therefore one of commentator rather than influencer. I appeal again to opposition leaders to start talking regularly to one another in a structured manner. The highly contested succession debate within the ruling party is a good enough reason alone for us to consult one another.
One acknowledges that the participation of some opposition parties in government might blunt their readiness to do so. I concede that my party’s participation in government diluted and, too often, obfuscated our opposition role.
The other side of the coin is that we, as a nation, must attach greater value to the role of the opposition. One of the reasons that I called for a conference on the opposition in 2004 was to consider how we entrench a sense of respect for the role of opposition (as well as define it) in South Africa. When I made this call, I was not presuming to take the leading role, which may have been the misunderstanding.
During the recent State of the Nation debate, I appealed to "to both sides of the aisle to consider the need to join hands to provide our contribution in our respective roles by placing the interest of the country above our own parties". The challenges of HIV/Aids, poverty, crime, corruption and unemployment demand, I believe, that the opposition talk together on issues of national interest with the purpose of fulfilling our role of nudging government to take the right actions.
Many of the ideals of South Africa’s parliamentary democracy and practises are inspired by the Westminster system. It is worth drawing a comparison.
In Britain, the opposition is known as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Shadow cabinet ministers are made privy counsellors and enjoy privileged access to classified information. In times of war or of grave domestic crisis, the prime minister privately consults and appraises opposition leaders. It is well known that the prime minister and the leader of the opposition meet fairly often to discuss government business and national issues.
This is one way, I suggest, that our leaders can learn to talk to teach other rather than past each other, as the President recently put it.
Letters to the prime minister from opposition leaders are always answered briskly and comprehensively. The weekly Questions to the Prime Minister are the highpoint of the parliamentary week. A lacklustre performance by the PM or opposition leader is devastating. He or she must prepare diligently for any line of questioning from the leader of the opposition and opposition (as well as government) MP’s. This requires gaining a personal understanding of issues that are important to members.
We have not yet created a similar culture of respect for the parliamentary role of the opposition. Practically, life is also easier for opposition members of parliament than here.
British MP’s are splendidly served. Questions on any subject, for example, can be sent to the House of Commons library. Within a short period, a crisp informative answer on embossed paper is dispatched providing the public representative with succinct and pertinent information. The services available to American legislators are, I am told, equally excellent. Ready access to information is a prerequisite for any serious politician. Expensive yes, but democracy is not a cheap exercise.
Until we improve the facilities available to opposition MP’s so that we can at least "shadow" government, we are unlikely to raise the quality of the game – never mind contend for power.