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Adam Habib's Open Letter To MPs: History Will Judge You

This is a big moment. MPs need to rise to the occasion, says the vice-chancellor of Wits University and politics professor.

07/08/2017 11:53 SAST | Updated 07/08/2017 12:27 SAST
Stephane De Sakutin/ AFP/ Getty Images
ANC (African National Congress) Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe (C) flanked by ANC national spokesman Jackson Mthembu (L) and ANC national executive member Matole Motshekga.

You stand at the cusp of history where a momentous decision has to be made, perhaps one of the most significant in the short life of our democratic nation. There have of course been other symbolically important moments in the parliament of democratic South Africa -- the election of the first democratic president, the adoption of the Constitution, the resignation of the second democratic president -- but none have been such a real test to the nation's representatives where they have been called to truly act in difficult circumstances in the fulfillment of their fundamental mandate.

This is a different moment from any other. Don't make the mistake by thinking it is not. Yes, there have been previous motions of no confidence. But none have taken place under these circumstances. Not only is this motion of no confidence preceded by a debate in the NEC where a similar motion was deliberated on, but it is also accompanied by an unprecedented rebellion within the ANC's party ranks at the sheer scale of the looting, the President's irresponsible behavior and decisions on cabinet appointments and dismissals, and the emergence of evidence indicating the capture of the Presidency and other parts of the state by a single family, all of which has aggravated the economic and social crisis in our society.

The Gupta emails and the relentless and fearless coverage of them ensures that no one today, especially a Member of Parliament (MP), can plead deniability arguing that they did not know about the scale of the problem. You are now required to fulfil your oath of office to hold accountable a leader who has repeatedly failed to uphold his, one who repeatedly handed the decision making of his office to those that have not been elected by this country's citizens. It is a difficult moment, I know because you are being asked to act against one of your own, one who has fought in the trenches with you.

A proportional party system in our framework does not require an MP to subject his conscience to the whim of the party leader. This would be a violation of our Constitution.

But his violation is not a minor infraction but a fundamental betrayal of not only his oath of office but also the very essence of our liberation struggle. It is an abrogation of the ideals of a once proud liberation movement. And it is worth noting that when this had happened previously in the history of the ANC, the collective had the courage to rise to the occasion to correct the deficit within it. Now you are being asked to do the same for the nation as a whole.

It should be remembered that history is a harsh judge on those who fail in their fundamental responsibility when the moment arises. Think of the German prison guards of the gas chambers who claimed that they were simply following orders or the priests in Rwanda who refused to protect those being hunted in the genocide, or even some of our fellow white citizens who claim that they were unaware of the atrocities of apartheid. They all have been harshly condemned by the scribes of history, and all have to hide their complicity in these acts. It is a fate you want to avoid for yourself.

There are some like Secretary General Gwede Mantashe who argue that your responsibility is not to act in line with your conscience but in accordance with the party leadership's decision. Clearly, he has very little understanding of how a proportional party system works in the South African constitutional framework. Let me enlighten him in this regard. A proportional party system in our framework does not require an MP to subject his conscience to the whim of the party leader. This would be a violation of our Constitution.

The threat that the ANC government would not be allowed to reconstitute itself is mere political posturing and has no basis in reality.

Rather, it requires the appointment of MPs whom the party has confidence in, and to whom it gives the authority and autonomy to deliberate in Parliament on the issues before them and make an individual decision in the best interests of the nation. Yes, they are allowed to debate, consult, collectively deliberate, and even caucus, but ultimately each has to make an individual decision, in accordance with their conscience, and in the interests of the nation as a whole. Otherwise, there is no purpose to Parliament. We might as well get party leaders to pronounce on the matter at hand.

Jackson Mthembu similarly suggests that to vote with the opposition would be tantamount to enabling the collapse of the ANC government. Again, he clearly is not particularly au faire with his responsibilities, and so it may be useful to enlighten him. First, once a motion is tabled, it is the responsibility of every MP to reflect on the merits of the matter at hand. If not, then the convening of the house would be a pointless exercise. Second, if the motion of no confidence were to carry the day, then cabinet does indeed collapse.

But it is immediately reconstituted when a new leader is appointed by Parliament. This would inevitably be someone chosen from the ranks of the ANC, and most probably the Deputy President should be put forward by the ruling party, simply because of the overwhelming representation of the ANC in both houses of parliament.

MPs will be establishing a precedent in a young democracy to ensure that accountability is ingrained in our political system.

Of course what Mthembu has not said is that he fears that members of the Zuma faction may not vote for a new ANC leader simply out of spite. But again, he does not understand ordinary political party dynamics. Once Zuma falls as president in the legislature, his party base will most likely abandon him to reposition themselves within the new political conditions. But even if this does not fully happen, opposition parties will most likely allow the new party leader to be chosen from the ANC.

Julius Malema is already on record as saying that the EFF will enable the ANC to continue to govern until 2019 because this was the democratic will of the people. It is not very often where I get to agree with the leader of the EFF, but on this issue, he is entirely correct. While the DA has not as yet made a similar pronouncement, it would be very harshly judged by the electorate if it were to try and subvert the democratic will prior to 2019. Given all of this, the threat that the ANC government would not be allowed to reconstitute itself is mere political posturing and has no basis in reality.

There is also another reason why acting with one's conscience is so necessary in this case. Essentially MPs will be establishing a precedent in a young democracy to ensure that accountability is ingrained in our political system. If they decide to act with their conscience, they will ensure that no other family or group of individuals will ever behave with such arrogance or impunity as to believe that they are beyond the law and can enrich themselves at the nation's expense.

The future of this beloved country lies in your vote!

In this sense, their decision will reverberate for generations to come and be spoken of in awe as a precedent setting in establishing an accountable political system. But it will also cross party boundaries to influence the opposition benches. Opposition leaders are too complacent, but they too are as guilty as Mantashe and Mthembu of wanting to constrain MPs from acting with their conscience and in the national interest. A precedent here will thus not only reverberate down the generations but also across party boundaries.

ANC leaders are often fond of talking about party leaders -- Tambo, Sisulu, Madiba, Kotane, First and others -- in reverential terms. Much of this is well deserved. But it would be wise to remember that their reverential reputations were forged not by being party apparatchiks, but because when the moment required it, they rose to the occasion, saw the bigger picture, and placed the interests of the nation first. Kotane was utterly incorruptible and stood as a bulwark against it, as Dadoo so memorably described him in his funeral oration. First was always critical of the party's refusal to allow dissent and often challenged the leadership.

Tambo rose to the occasion in both Morogoro and in Kabwe, where on both occasions, he enabled a dissenting opinion to emerge and influence the ANC's policies. Mandela, of course, rose to his statesmanlike stature at the moment of Chris Hani's assassination, where he placed the nation at the centre of his focus and used the moment to chart a path to democracy. If you are to honour the memory of these compatriots and act to consolidate their legacy, then voting with your conscience has to be mandatory. Tuesday, 8 August 2017, is your Morogoro and Kabwe, and may you act in accordance with your soul and in the interests of a nation. The future of this beloved country lies in your vote!