In an eventful, and crisis-driven three terms as British Prime Minister, Tony Blair both created and confronted some big issues and hairy moments.
Here is his unequivocal description of the worst of them: “ It was the most discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime-ministerial life, without question.”
Was he describing the decision to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with George W. Bush and invade Iraq on a false prospectus? Or, perhaps, nudging Queen Elizabeth to show some public emotion over the death of Princess Diana? Maybe, it was dealing with the destabilisation plots of his party rival and Chancellor, Gordon Brown?
None of the above: Blair was recounting, in his memoir, the weekly gladiatorial contest in Parliament, known as “Prime Minister’s Question Time” .This is the forum where even the most obscure backbencher can bring low and perhaps, on occasion, humiliate the most powerful politician in the land.
However high the Prime Minister stands in his own, or even in his country’s , estimation, this weekly joust creates a rough equality between the executive and members of the legislature. The PM has no advance knowledge of the questions, nor even the identity of the MP who will ask them.
Readers might have noted last week’s report on how the ruling party in South Africa intends to convert our own parliament into what the Sunday Times editorial aptly projects will become, under the ANC’s proposed new rules, a ‘toy telephone’.
Jacob Zuma either cannot or will not properly answer the questions put to him when he rocks up quarterly for the very carefully stage-managed current format of President’s question time.
No problem. Instead of having a president fit for purpose, the panjandrums who designed the new rules of parliament intend the rules to be re-arranged to fit him and some of his errant ministers.
Described by political reporters as ‘radical new rules’, they propose to ‘forbid MPs from interrupting the President’ and ‘disallow impromptu questions to the head of state’. Ministers will in this happy new world of North Korean adulation, face no penalty if they fail to answer questions put to them properly, or at all.
And just in case the public gallery is unimpressed with the quality or nature of the President and his ministers’ responses or non-responses, the new rules have a cure for this too. Places in the public gallery will no longer be allocated on the basis of public interest: under the new code it is proposed to allocate seats to ‘reflect party support levels’. Too bad if you happen to be a genuine taxpayer, who is helping to fund the R1m annual salary for each of 490 MPs, and you want to see how your money is being spent. If you are not aligned to a party, you will not get a seat, and, even if you are partisan, the quota for your party might well be full.
I suppose these days, the ANC takes stumbling China as its state-led economic role model and turns to Russia to see how to create a top-down authoritarian parliament which kowtows to presidential power while pretending to be democratic.
The stumbling block, of course, is that our own constitution was not designed by either the Russian or the Chinese. It even, extraordinarily, predates the arrival of the Gupta family on these shores.
It was designed at Kempton Park by South Africans determined to place a mighty brake on the power abuses of the dark ages of apartheid and ensure that a relentless light would be shone on the corridors of power. In the words of the Freedom Charter, no less, “The People Shall Govern.” Not the president, not the minister, but the people who would express their views and hold power to account through democratically elected MPs.
A few weeks ago, in far less dramatic circumstances than when I participated in Codesa, I returned to the site of those epic constitutional negotiations. This time I was to deliver an evening speech to a convention of retailers. But I couldn’t help but notice that where the World Trade Centre once stood, in its place there is now an elaborate casino complex with faux intimations of the splendours of the Roman Empire.
Reflecting on the proposed new rules for parliament and the conversion of Codesa’s venue into salons for roulette wheels and the green beize of the black jack tables, I had some irreverent thoughts. Had we taken a large gamble back then in hoping to constrain the appetites for power of the new elite? Was our democracy today a poor imitation of the real thing, like the fake statues around the fountains of Emperors Palace ?
I cannot fathom with accuracy, of course, the purpose of those who sit in back rooms in the ANC today and designed this extraordinary new straitjacket which they would like to fit over the democratic parliament and strangle its creativity and democratic vitality.
But a big clue to the mindset behind these proposals appears in the sub- section dealing with questions to ministers and which did not get any publicity when published. You couldn’t make up this section. It reads in its unvarnished glory :
“It is believed that some members may be more interested in political point scoring than in Ministers’ responses to questions put. It is further believed that some members can rely on such questions as basis for claims that some Ministers do not master the content of their areas of deployment.”
Just imagine: a democratic parliament being used to score political points! Or worse, MPs daring to show up ministers for incompetence in their portfolios. As Joseph Conrad wrote, “The horror, the horror.”
The first speaker of the democratic parliament, Dr Frene Ginwale, made a candid admission very early on in the democratic transition. She noted that “the liberation movements have also brought a military style authoritarianism, combined with a tendency to close ranks defensively when criticised.”
Today, etched into these draft rules we see, two decades later, the full flowering of her warning.
The proposed rules are doubtless undemocratic and probably unconstitutional as well. But what is most surprising is their sheer shamelessness. As Tony Blair said, it is “discombobulating “.
This article first appeared in The Sunday Times