Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Democracy under assault but whats new under the African sun? A great piece by S'Thembiso Msomi

Heed the warning signs
Recent developments in a number of political parties suggest one thing: our young democracy is under assault.
Factionalism and jockeying for position is normal in political parties anywhere in the world - especially those that operate within democratic principles - but what is happening here points to a deeper problem - one that puts into question the very survival of our democratic dispensation.

Perhaps it ought to surprise no one that the power struggle in the ANC Youth League has degenerated into the purging of those who disagree with its leaders.

The current crop of leaders in this wing of the ruling party has never seemed too keen on democratic processes.

Remember how they came to power at that chaotic national conference in 2008?

The same can justifiably be said of the spectacular self-destruction we continue to witness in the Congress of the People.

Regardless of what its founders said about the necessity of a viable opposition in building a strong democracy, we know that there would not have been a COPE had Mosiuoa Lekota, Mbhazima Shilowa and their fellow travellers not lost a democratic contest at the ANC national conference in Polokwane in 2007.

And then there is the IFP, whose national council, its second-highest decision-making body, resolved on Sunday to once again postpone an elective annual general conference that was scheduled for the coming weekend.

The general conference, which should have taken place in June last year, has been shelved because party bosses are afraid of losing a democratic contest to national chairwoman Zanele Magwaza-Msibi.

Whatever one thinks of party president Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his track record at the helm of Inkatha for the past 35 years, the fact is that the prince considers himself a dyed-in-the-wool democrat.

His supporters often wax lyrical about how he helped to stop post-apartheid South Africa "from sliding into a one-party state like most of Africa".

Some of those supporters must now be wondering why this leader, who has always fashioned himself as a champion of pluralism and freedom of association, would allow the party hierarchy to use every trick in the book to try to circumvent a democratic process.

Two weeks ago, the party's national council initiated an inquiry into Magwaza-Msibi's link with a group that has used guerrilla tactics, inside and outside the IFP, to campaign for her presidency.

Were a link to be found, Magwaza-Msibi would be suspended, or barred from contesting the election next weekend.

But she did not pitch up at the national council meeting last weekend at which the inquiry was to be held. She submitted a medical certificate instead.

This put a spanner in the works of those who wanted her suspended before the elective conference.

So they decided to postpone the conference indefinitely, announcing that it would take place only "subsequent to the normalisation of the atmosphere within the party".

In other words, there will be no elective conference for as long as the Magwaza-Msibi threat continues to exist.

But what is wrong with holding a fair and open contest at which the party rank and file can decide whom they want as their leader?

Magwaza-Msibi is clearly a popular figure in the IFP, but surely her support base cannot be larger than Buthelezi's?

So why all this fear?

The IFP president has kept everybody guessing about whether he'll retire. Current events suggest that he has decided to step down but fears that his choice of successor, the Rev Musa Zondi, would not be able to fend off a Magwaza-Msibi challenge in an election.

If Buthelezi is the true democrat he claims to be, he will allow the two to fight it out, and accept the democratic will of IFP members.

But what does all of this have to do with the state of the country's democracy?

If political parties, both in government and opposition, cannot brook dissent from within, what hope is there that they will do so on a national stage?

The decay and eventual collapse of the Zimbabwean democracy - once regarded as the best in Southern Africa - began with the suppression of alternative voices in the ruling Zanu-PF.

It is in the interests of us all that the democratic space remains open in all of the political parties.