Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Weekly Newsletter to the Nation –
The Question of How We Are Governed Cannot be Deferred Forever
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
If as Cato the Younger, a politician and statesman in the late Roman Republic, averred, the health of the Republic is to be the supreme law, we must ask the question today: is the institution of the executive presidency the best prescription for South Africa?
It was this question that led me to table the 18th Constitution Amendment Bill to separate the Head of State from the Head of Government, establishing both a President and Prime Minister at the next general election.
Last Friday, 12 March I presented the Bill to the Private Members’ Committee in the green leather bound and oak panelled surroundings of the Old Assembly Chamber. This week, on Wednesday, I heard that the Committee had rejected the Bill. I was not too surprised that my ANC colleagues were not persuaded by the Bill’s merits, but I was a little disappointed that DA committee member Mr James Selfe was not supportive.
Mr Tony Leon, after all, had proposed the same idea at Codesa and I would have thought that my proposal might have struck a liberal democratic chord or two.
Anyway, I believe a marker has been laid down and that sooner, rather than later, we will have to address the crisp questions that my Bill raised, because the health of the Republic is not good.
It is worth briefly recounting the recent history, after 2005, which sharpened my conviction that the institutional framework of governance had to be transformed.
I tabled the Bill in the months after the sickening sights we all saw on television of the insults hurled at the Head of State during the vigils held outside the courts in support of Mr Zuma during his rape trial, and during the state visit of the prime minister of India.
In 2006, when evaluating the damage that was being done to the institution of the Presidency, I warned members of the ANC during the Presidency Budget Vote debate in parliament of the unacceptability of the conduct of some members of the ANC and its alliance partners.
I pointed out that whilst the distinction between the Office and Office bearer is nebulous, acts such as the burning of tee-shirts bearing the image of the President and the vulgar expletives aimed at Mr Mbeki by some of Mr Zuma’s supporters was seriously undermining the Office of the Head of State at home and abroad.
It seemed to me that the early spring flowers of democracy were wilting in the icy winds of a winter of discontent.
This was one of the reasons, but not the sole one, why I called for the offices of the head of state and head of government to be separated in the longstanding South African tradition. It is pertinent to note that I was not necessarily making a declaration of political support for President Mbeki as was wrongly interpreted by some – I was asked this again by SABC last week – but was calling for him to be treated with the dignity and respect demanded by his office. I would have said the same if Mr Zuma or Ms Patricia de Lille was the President, or anyone else for that matter. I also fear, as I told the Committee last week, that now this ugly precedent has been set, any future President could receive the same treatment.
I don’t think that in the post Polokwane era that I need to labour the observation that our Republic is in a crisis. The salutatory lesson we must draw from this is that for the Republic to be healthy (one could, for argument’s sake, insert post 9/11 America’s ill-fated decision to invade and occupy Iraq here), is that it cannot depend upon the personality, be it good, evil or diffident, of the presidential incumbent.
Can we, dear readers, truly share Franklin D Roosevelt’s hope famously expressed in his inauguration address “that the normal balance of executive and legislative authority may be wholly equal, wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us”?
The answer, in our case, must be no.
My Bill’s provisions do not revolve around current personalities: the dramatis personae of our time, but around the need to uphold the dignity of the Office of the President and to strengthen our constitutional system.
In our arrangements, our Head of State, the President, is also the Head of Government. He or she carries the ultimate responsibility for all the actions of the government of the day. When the government is assailed, like it is at the present time, the president is held personally responsible, with the baleful consequence that the stature of the presidency is steadily diminished. With each new crisis, the prestige of the institution is chipped away at.
When the tempest strikes, in the absence of a unifying symbol, we tend to forget that the President, the first citizen, is, in a special and sacred sense, the living symbol of all citizens, regardless of political affiliation or none.
Charles de Gaulle, with Gallic élan, described the role he envisaged for the French president when he wrote the modern French constitution. He said the head of state should embody "the spirit of the nation" for both the nation and the world: “une certaine idée de la France”, a certain idea about France. But as I said in my questions and answers during my presentation to the Committee last week, the French system of “co-habitation” is a complex and peculiarly French one which accounts for the fact that it has not been exported elsewhere including Francophone Afrique!
The cut and thrust of public debate and, indeed, bloodletting from time to time, are features of the democratic landscape everywhere, but there is something, I believe, which must remain sacred: above the fray, in a fledged-democracy. We, the people of SA are still yet to fully inculcate the notion of a State or Republic (in my newsletter last week I used the well-known metaphor of the ‘ship of state’) which majestically sails on regardless of the incumbent in office.
Most democracies are based on a parliamentary rather than an executive form of government. The separation of the powers of Head of State and Head of Government has been tested for 350 years. The Head of State rules or reigns, but does not govern. The day-to-day activity of government is left to a Prime Minister: primus inter pares (the first among equals).
This allows the Head of State to be above reproach like the Queen of Great Britain, or President Shimon Peres of Israel or like, yes, President Nelson Mandela of South Africa (I shall return to the latter Nobel Peace Laureate in a moment).
For the reasons I have given earlier, I firmly believe that South Africa would be better served by a President and Prime Minister. The present executive system is, in fact, foreign to our system. Long before 1994, South Africa had a president and prime minister.
>From 1994 to 1999, something rather remarkable happened: President Mandela transcended the body politic as he was, as he himself described it, the de jure President, while the deputy President served as the de facto President. In this short, now seemingly golden age, President Mandela went about the work of reconciliation and nation-building at home and abroad whilst his deputy got on with the day-to-day business of government. Mr Mandela, the undisputed nation’s father, has, by dint of his towering personality, retained a balancing effect over the political system since he has retired. But we cannot depend on this for ever, not to mention the continuity provided by President Thabo Mbeki since 1994.
My Bill would allow the President to operate above party politics, carefully balancing the dynamics of politics and the functioning of government institutions. He or she would be the umpire, not the player, in the domestic arena, and would represent SA in the ever burgeoning arena of international affairs and statecraft. The President would also undertake all ceremonial functions in SA.
With the President attending to these tasks, the Prime Minister would be freed up to attend to the daily grind of government: unemployment, HIV/Aids and tuberculosis, crime, systemic poverty, the crisis in education, the chaos at Home Affairs to name but a few challenges.
The final point I would like to make is that parliament’s role would be strengthened. We would be become a genuine parliamentary democracy.
This, as I have so often stated in my online letter, is the other weak: the weakest link, which endangers our procedural democracy.
Since 1994, we have been witnessing the inexorable centralisation of power.
Power has gravitated from society to state, from local and provincial spheres to national, and from judiciary and legislature to executive.
This top heavy concentration of power at the centre, paradoxically, sits astride a weak delivery state. We need to redistribute power away from the centre.
In constitution-drafting, the devil is in the details. The IFP advocated a strong federal system at Codesa because I knew that the present system would turn provinces and their Manchurian premiers into lackeys of the executive.
As the Prime Minister, appointed by the President, would serve at the will of the parliamentary majority, the government would instantly become more accountable and the role of parliament in public policy making would be enhanced. I would say parliament plays a zero role in the latter at the present time. But that is another issue for another time.
My Bill was rejected this week, but we will not be able to resist addressing the consequences of the dangerous concurrence of events that led me to motivate it for much longer.
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP