"We have, therefore we shall."
This has, for millennia, been the guiding principle that politicians have used to justify the decisions they make that affect the people they govern – whether it be the consistent removal of democratically elected leaders by way of a coup d'état in West African nations, or the shutting down of an entire U.S. federal government over policy disagreements.
Taking strong actions with initially justifiable reasoning often runs the risk of setting a precedent which is not always in the best interests of the public.
The people may initially benefit from a drastic action perpetrated by the government – however, that very same action has the propensity to be used in a manner that serves selfish political interests rather than the needs of the people.
South Africa is facing a tumultuous political period that could very well shape the future of the nation. We have seen, over the past few months, court judgments, damning allegations, the seizing of controversial assets and revelations before Parliament. All indications are that these developments, in isolation, are the steps needed in order to iron out the creases in governance within our fledgling democracy.
However, these drastic steps, although much needed and perfectly justifiable under the current political dispensation, could set the stage for similar events in the future that could be used to destroy an administration popular with the people, but not with politicians. This is the fundamental danger when setting a broad-based political precedent.
In 2008, South Africa saw the use of a political term that was then foreign to high-ranking deployees of the ANC within the Cabinet: a presidential recall.
Former president Thabo Mbeki was declared unfit by the highest decision-making body of the ANC, the national executive committee (NEC), which saw him resign due to a lack of faith in his ability to govern by the body that appointed him to the highest office in the land.
This set the stage, in 2018, for rumours of an impending recall of President Jacob Zuma by the same body, the NEC. Many, including myself, believe that President Zuma leaving office is the first in a long list of steps needed to restore confidence in the state, and therefore the nation. However, a recall is not the process needed to facilitate this key event.
A recall of President Zuma could see the recall of an ANC-appointed president in future simply because of political pride. The ANC is not an infallible organisation, and is more than capable of electing a party president who might not have the interests of the nation at heart.
Political precedents are invariably going to be made when taking drastic political decisions.
This theoretical president could very well, assuming he/she has the necessary support within the NEC, be installed following the recall a president who has sweeping public support steeped in pristine governance.
It has to be noted that a recall by the ANC is not constitutionally binding in any way. However, the ANC could very well constitutionally vote out a president – by means of a motion of no-confidence – who has fallen out of favour with the party, but not with the electorate.
Thus, a precedent of recalling the state president is dangerous in the best light. The crisis of dangerous political precedents can very well be avoided. A clear stipulation of the necessary prerequisites to making an important political decision is the best way to avoid a crisis in future.
The Constitutional Court ruling on allowing a vote by secret ballot was clear and concise when stipulating the political climate under which a secret ballot would be necessary. These clear outlines serve to prevent the abuse of a secret ballot in future.
Therefore, rules and outlines can prevent dangerous political precedents from being set. Political precedents are invariably going to be made when taking drastic political decisions. These precedents have the ability to wreck a democracy if abused in the future or misused initially.
The only way this can be averted is by setting down clear rules regarding the taking of drastic political actions, whether these rules be in the laws of the land or the rules of a political party.
"We have, but we may not" – this is how we save our country today and in the future.