We are faithful to our short- and medium-term plans for keeping our bodies off the streets, out of jails, away from emergency rooms and further away from mortuaries. Our children, businesses, employers and employees rely on our political silence and invisibility. We trend #JeSuisCharlie when it’s about Europeans that would rather die standing than live on their knees.
But when the rubber hits the road it’s not our feet, but our knees, that hit the ground. Then we realize too late that our fear of being too radical protected us from being radical enough when the hour demanded it – and therefore did not protect us at all.
National Assembly is the sacrosanct gathering of those that represent all of us and our rights. Their job isn’t to score political points. But never has the number of points scored been this far ahead of rights protected.
Let us consider even that final hope of Constitutionalism, the DA. I hope I’m imagining things here, but I sense their Pharisaic holier-than-thou syndrome seems to have intensified as of late. They turned down an invitation to the SONA after-party at the last minute (not everyone is convinced that their being invited late necessarily means they weren’t expecting an invitation), and then, having recoiled at its costs, still made plans to eat at a restaurant. My facts on this are scant and I’d welcome clarification. But from down here many of us are not hearing about how the restaurant the DA went to was more economically sensible or that the party spent its own funds, if it did, instead of public funds.
Many of us are hearing instead that the DA went out of its way to “prove” how wasteful government is. Some are also seeing traces of self-imposed alienation in their refusal to sit at the same function with the other parties – who are their colleagues – which could be perceived as a form of apartheid. Suddenly, the Cape Town racism stories hold more water. For many people, “We won’t eat with them on principle” becomes as difficult to distinguish from “We don’t eat with those kinds” as “They are black leaders who should step down because they’re bad” is from “They are bad leaders who should step down because they’re black”. The words and thoughts swap that easily.
Nor have many of us seen the party’s more mature white boys rub shoulders with other MPs from other parties. It may be that I don’t watch enough TV or have missed the pictures, but I’ve yet to see pics depicting less adversarial moments of camaraderie, off-the-cuff joking and good-natured ribbing around, selfies between Ministers and their Shadow Ministers, or of disarming post-debate handshakes. Whose Facebook page must I follow to see this? It would be healing in a nation so brutally divided over party politics.
What we have seen is the DA Caucus use the EFF’s rabble-rousing to its advantage and then release a newsletter within the week in which they extol the superiority of the path the blue party took – a path or opportunity that, in many cases, would not have materialized hadn’t it been for the EFF doing the dirty work, digging up the soil where the DA would plant another seed of constitutionalism in our rock-hard political landscape. The EFF at least tells you ahead of time that they’re planning to disrupt: what you see is what you get. The DA never admits that the EFF’s disruptions may be needed in some of their stratagem.
Most unforgivably, the DA repeatedly fails to anticipate the ANC’s anticonstitutionalism. This exaggerates their responses to the ANC’s infringements of the lesser matters of the law and dilutes their responses to the ANC’s breaking of its weightier preceipts. From turning down the invite, to wearing black, to shunning the red carpet, the DA had been coming across as the sulking, jilted lover. Sure, their MPs were arrested and now have “struggle credentials” as one of my friends pointed out. But short of sitting outside in ashes and sackcloth, the DA had done everything in its power to remind everyone of just how squeaky-clean they are. Problem is the perception could be that they’re still jealous after last year’s elections. By the time the ANC Chair/Speaker of parliament called the police to deal with the EFF, the DA could not do anything to top what they had already done in terms of moral point-scoring. They staged a walkout – and staged is the right word – but from everything they had done until then, they might as well have not attended SONA; many South Africans chalked their walkout not to a response to a breach in law and ethics, but to their not wanting to be there with the other parties and Jacob Zuma to begin with. Their exit was seen as good riddance to the scorned prophets of doom. Some of the MPs clapped for that reason and not because they perceived a victory. It wasn’t necessarily all about power trumping principle, and principle exiting to the sound of power’s arrogant applause. That would be too simple an explanation but it seems to be the darling one at the moment.
Morally, then, the walkout was an anticlimax; elegant, but its force lost on the 62%. The reason for the walkout, instead of being perceived as a legitimate constitutional gripe, was seen by much of the public as just another point the DA felt like scoring on another triviality among many. A teachable moment in which the constitution could have shone went to waste because the DA’s need to appear constitutional had, far from bolstering its teaching credibility, actually wore it thin. They overkilled on the morality. My personal vote for the blue party is assured, but it is also cast with a sighed “…nevertheless”.
Four questions arise:
1.) Is the DA fully aware of the dissonance between its claim to constitutionality and its need for the EFF’s unconstitutionality to accelerate its own interests in Parliament, namely, the need to emerge smelling like constitutionality on a bed of roses?
2.) If they can’t see that for themselves, then can their promise of getting South Africa fixed without a breach of the law be trusted?
3.) Is their insistence on being the constitutional party blinding not only themselves to how they rely on the unconstitutionality of others, but also distorting our assessment of what can still be achieved through the structures of government that have been so badly infected that they can only serve Zuma’s ultimate interests? Is their drive for scoring points on the “we are the party that protects constitutional structures: please ignore how we ride on the EFF’s effing them up to come across as its constrast” front blinding them, and consequently us, to the country’s need for a (hopefully peaceful) movement of civil disobedience that, while defending in the long run the spirit of the Constitution, remains unshackled from its letter?
4.) Which country has gotten where we are, and fixed things without colouring outside the lines of a law that had become leverage for the despot of the day? Please name one. We may be the first to try it, and the reason we will is that whatever our feelings about the DA, the DA’s brand image relies on the idea that it’s possible to beat history’s odds even if their strategy betrays that it isn’t, which they seem to either not know or not want to know. This keeps people complacent. I mean, if the severely left-brain DA says we can still win this battle by the book, then there must be something to the idea. They’re the clever kids, no? Even their enemies think so. So there is no need to plan an uprising, it would appear: our institutions are strong enough for the Opposition to appeal to them.
In other words, the DA’s strategy of appearing constitutional may be overshadowing the way we calculate the country’s options. After describing how the night was a successful branding exercise for the three parties, Richard Poplak says, “So everyone emerged a winner, which is to say we all emerged losers”. They will continue being winners because they are the Establishment. There are no banned parties. It all looks like good-cop/bad-cop but the house always wins and they are all in the house having a violent ménage à trois. Just when you thought you’d picked SONA over 50 Shades, you get both in a bizzare reality TV drama.
In light of this all-round political point-scoring, it is disturbing that many of fundamentally rights were violated with relish. The Constitution was all but abolished. Why does South Africa have such a high crime rate? Look at National Assembly – literally the Assembling of the Nation – and you will see why our nation is racked in crime: it’s how we settle the room before a speech by the kingpin. And we continue with business as usual as he giggles. Because when we’re willing to let this happen in there for him, we let him feel like he’s God. In a supreme twist of irony, the very protocol we look to keep our constitutional institutions intact will be used to defend Mbete’s choice to summon the police. Beware of rigid constitutionalism when your competition has power over its resources.
It is said that any idiot can count the number of seeds in an apple but very few can see the number of apples in a seed. Each event is a seed waiting to blossom into future events. Very few people foresaw their daughters someday being kidnapped by the Boko Haram and other atrocities happening in Parliament’s unraveling. Because if we can’t protect human rights in Parliament – where the Nation Assembles – we won’t be able to protect ourselves when parasites recognize South Africa for the soft target that it is. Very few people foresaw, in all its vividness, the human rights violations, the failed/police state, the censorship and the confiscation of property and the loss of lives that were tucked into SONA 2015. Africa north of us is a vivid picture of where we’re headed, and we’re still business as usual. We insist on playing safe as discussed in the opening paragraph. And that’s very dangerous. Very few people really counted the number of toxic apples in this one seed, SONA2015.
Very few people realized that the time for analysis followed by business-as-usual is over. We may already be too late for a revolution. Politics was left to the politicians for too long. Jacob Zuma has infected Executive, Legislature and Judiciary enough that being in good standing with one of them may be enmity with all that is good and true. In the movie “Doubt”, Meryl Streep’s character said that sometimes to serve God, one has to take a few steps back from him. I submit that a robust love of the Constitution will need a populace that can admit where the rules need to be broken so that those that rule and break at will may be brought to book. That civil disobedience can only emerge from citizens outside the Establishment.
Someone may ask, “But where do you draw the line, and on what basis would the line be drawn there and nowhere else?” I’ll be very honest: I don’t know, but I don’t believe I have to know because those who have truly internalized the Constitution would still be pretty human while revolting, and those who haven’t are troublemakers either way. For better or worse that line would draw itself. The troubles are inevitable. Trying to hold on to a visage of cconstitutionality will draw out the pain.
I also do know the heat has been going up so slowly that the frogs in the pot will not gather the resolve to make any startling leap for their lives. If we knew what was at stake we’d be planning a staggered tax revolt or an acute Arab Spring while today is still today.
But for many of us it’s business as usual. Nothing will happen. Playing it safe, we will unleash Absolutely No Consequences. That’s why God giggled from that podium.