Interesting parallels between SA and UK, both are at political crossroads

Interesting parallels between SA and UK, both are at political crossroads

Parliament’s approval of land expropriation without compensation could set SA on a slippery slope while Theresa May’s Brexit nightmare continues

Is SA, inexorably, on the slide-path to a destination named Venezuela or Zimbabwe? On Tuesday, this parallel was top of mind for some when parliament voted — after just 86 minutes of debate — to adopt a report recommending amendment of the constitution  to permit expropriation of land without compensation. But where this journey will end remains speculative.

One reason for the uncertainty of final outcome must be that there is no precision when invoking historical analogy or geographic parallels. In 1961, South American historians Will and Ariel Durant reminded us that “history smiles at all attempts to force its flows into theoretical patterns or logical grooves; it plays havoc with our generalisations; breaks all our rules”.

Warming to the theme that “history is baroque”, Israeli statesman Abba Eban wrote in 1998: “The fiasco of Munich does not invalidate all negotiated compromises. The failure of the Vietnam War does not eliminate the need for armed resistance to aggression in better circumstances.”

The rise of populism and extreme nationalism given voice today in the White House and across a swathe of Western democracies has led to imprecise parallels drawn with the rise of fascism and even Nazism in the 1930s.

In 2003, British prime minister Tony Blair said that Iraqi’s murderous dictator, Saddam Hussein, was cut from the same cloth as Adolf Hitler and failure to confront his regime would lead to the same outcome as the “peace in our time” appeasement in Munich in 1938. We know how this line played out in consequence.

But on the same day, procedural flaws and scant debate notwithstanding, as SA’s parliament commenced upending the 1996 negotiated compromise here, fellow legislators in Britain commenced debate on unravelling the country’s 45-year relationship with the EU.

The day before the debate started, former Bank of England governor Lord Mervyn King decided the overdrawn Munich analogy was worth another reprise. He thundered that Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal was akin to the appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s, adding on Bloomberg: “This deal is incompetence of the highest order and the government will never be forgiven if it approved the deal.”

Almost on cue, as legislators in London began their five-day debate and with  May obliged to make multiple explanations to the house — they voted three times against the government on the first day.

The thuddingly dull certainties of party obedience and predictable rhetoric and quick outcomes in our National Assembly contrasts with the wild uncertainties and detailed debate we witness currently in the House of Commons.

On Tuesday, as our parliament voted on predictable lines to green-light expropriation sans compensation, the British legislature found its government, for the first time in history, to be in contempt of parliament. Where the DA here is obliged to rush to court to make the same finding in future, UK MPs twice determined that their government’s failure to publish its full legal findings on the implications of the Brexit deal amounted to an attempt to undermine the sovereignty of the legislature.

The third defeat for the May government, on the same day, was even more perilous for its hopes of salvaging a victory on Tuesday  when the final vote is put.

Tory Remainers added sufficient numbers to the opposition side to allow parliament to determine the path forward if — and now very likely when — May’s proposal fails. While May’s fortitude and commended resilience is admirable, her objective weakness is also on full display. She does not command a parliamentary majority for her version of Brexit, her party is neuralgic on the question of Europe and she is hoist with her own unionist and xenophobic petard.

Given that she has drawn an indelible line in the sand over two issues — “taking back control” of migration and preserving Northern Ireland within the UK while retaining its open border with the Republic of Ireland — she cannot back another compromise.

But here the analogy, not so much perilous as obvious, is between her position today with the situation in which FW de Klerk found himself when SA’s interim constitution was being finalised in November 1993. Back then one of the hardest-fought issues was protection of property rights, and the essential compromise achieved at Kempton Park survived through the 1996 process. But for all its apparent achievements, there were many essential weaknesses in De Klerk’s negotiating position — several of which find a parallel with the tumult in British politics right now.

May was elected prime minister as a consequence of her predecessor’s decision to call a referendum in 2016 to “settle” the issue of EU membership. But while it was nationally determined, David Cameron’s motive was to end the Tory party debate on the issue. He morphed a party row into a country decision with international consequences.

In March 1992, De Klerk also called a referendum. He was dealing not so much with a party dispute as a tribal one. The rejectionist wing of white Afrikanerdom accused him of having no mandate for his “traitorous” power-sharing proposals and constitutional negotiations with the ANC.

Unlike Cameron who gambled and lost, De Klerk gambled and won. But he misread his near-70% victory. It was confined to the white minority and embedded in his win was a series of promised bottom lines — from permanent power sharing to rotating presidencies and minority vetoes — that events would render unattainable.

May, in picking up Cameron’s fallen baton, also set out a series of red lines, such as “no deal is better than a bad deal” and a rejection of a customs union with the EU and a promise to exit all arrangements with finality on February 29  2019.

As Harold Macmillan, a conservative PM from another age, warned, the most perilous fact confronting any leader is “events, dear boy, events”. What joins the currently empowered May to the long disempowered De Klerk is the fact that once you trigger a deadline, the power equation shifts decisively, often against you.

In the wake of Chris Hani’s terrible assassination in April 1993, De Klerk was hard up against a country spiralling out of control. At the first session of the negotiations after this the ANC demanded the date for the election be settled. The moment April 27 1994 was determined some nine months before the vote, the power visibly and ineluctably shifted from the National Party government to the ANC opposition. All other parties in the room knew where future power rested.

May, in turn, was obliged by her Tory Brexiteers to trigger article 50 on March 29 2017. She settled one set of problems only to unleash another. She now had only two year to exit the EU and the EU had no incentive to make her passage easy. It held the cards and could afford to wait, and she could do neither.

De Klerk exited the presidency within five months of his agreement with Nelson Mandela in November 1993. The question today is how long May will survive in office. Let’s see whether the local analogy is perilous or prescient.

Meantime, happy holidays to all.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.
@TonyLeonSA.

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