Parliamentary Millennium Project – Every view counts
Many people have described South Africa’s stunning transition from a racist state to an open, democratic society as a miracle. But it was a “miracle” that would not have happened had leaders across the political spectrum not committed themselves to dialogue aimed at achieving tolerance and national reconciliation.
The horrific consequences of the alternative – fighting rather than talking – were highlighted at the same time that millions of South Africans were looking forward to a bright new future….
On 10 May 1994, while Nelson Mandela was being sworn in as the first democratically-elected president of South Africa, in what was universally acclaimed as an historic moment, and which marked the triumph of tolerance and dialogue over the forces of violence, suppression and ignorance, a fellow African country was descending into murderous chaos.
On the very day that South Africans were applauding their new president and looking forward to a future filled with hope and courage, the death toll in a genocide in Rwanda had reached a quarter of a million.
A mere five days later, fatalities stood at 300,000
When the killing in the landlocked central African state stopped 38 days after Mandela’s inauguration, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans had been killed.
Closer to home, in KwaZulu-Natal, violent clashes threatened peace in the run-up to the 1994 elections, as well as after these elections. Thembinkosi Mchunu, the Speaker of the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature, echoed the views of millions of his compatriots when he said:
“The province of KZN has experienced in our life time the worst political violence in this country between two powerful organisations, the ANC and the IFP. This violence has split families, and communities – and has sparked a culture of intolerance. The result is a province wracked by tension, conflict, and confrontation. In the context of this province’s history, where there has been much tension and conflict, there is a great need for a project that encourages debate in the legislature and in broader civil society.”
The importance of dialogue and tolerance, in peace time as well as in times of crisis, is essential for the wellbeing of society, and cannot be overemphasised.
In this respect, it is important to be vigilant – and to allow dialogue to begin before matters get out of hand….
Some studies suggest that South Africa is currently experiencing a disturbing rise in xenophobia . While socio-economic conditions play a role in this phenomenon, rising xenophobia also indicates a lack of tolerance for diversity within our society.
While this has been happening, studies by Afrobarometer indicate that faith in our democratic institutions is dropping. To ensure the deepening and sustainability of our democracy, it is critically important that the capacity to promote tolerance through dialogue is encouraged throughout our system of governance. In this regard, Parliament, and all Legislatures for that matter, must play a strong role.
Parliament’s role in fostering tolerance through dialogue
In terms of its constitutional mandate, Parliament is obliged to provide a forum for the public consideration of issues that most directly deal with the topic of this publication. In response to this constitutional mandate, former Presiding Officers, Naledi Pandor and Dr. Frene Ginwala , initiated the Parliamentary Millennium Project (PMP).
In an interview with this publication, Pandor said:
“[We] wanted people to start talking with one another in a different way – and to understand one another from our different perspectives. We decided that the best way to do this was by inculcating debate. You don’t learn democracy through silence, you learn it through engagement… [Furthermore] we needed to look at to what degree we had started a national conversation about democracy in our country… We need to encourage a fundamental shift in the manner in which we talk about ourselves and in which we view our society. I think Parliament could play a strategic role in changing the character of the conversation…. We need to make the conversation a conversation of relevance to the people of our country”.
During the Constitutional negotiations, participants agreed on an electoral system based on proportional representation – the purpose being to ensure optimal representation of even the smallest minorities.
This is in stark contrast to the “first past the post” principle of the Westminster system.
The rules and systems that govern our Parliament have been drawn up to encourage the building of a democracy in which everyone can take part. In this regard, individual MPs and Members of Provincial Legislatures can play key roles. They need to continuously remind themselves of the importance of their responsibility to promote dialogue and public participation – and, thereby enhance the functioning of our system of governance.
Referring to this issue, Thembinkosi Mchunu, the Speaker of the KZN Legislature, asked:
“Are our legislative processes designed to allow this anger and frustration to come out – or have we designed our debates to frustrate discussion? [He therefore asserted that] we want to entrench the culture of debate, and parliament must lead this process.”
Douglas Gibson, who spent many years as an MP before accepting an ambassadorship, said:
“[There] is much more tolerance today; with diversity has come tolerance. In the old days the perceived wisdom was that you kept people apart to avoid friction, which is exactly wrong, because with diversity and with the mixing of people they discover that they have far more in common than they thought. [However, he noted that] within the current climate, you do have a certain intolerance of dissentient views, but not to the extent that you’re called a traitor, or unpatriotic – which was thrown around in the past. [But] quite often I get the feeling that other people’s culture is regarded as more important than my culture. People say, ‘in my culture we do this, that and the other, but seldom stop and ask what you do in your culture”.
Diversity – A source of strength or discord?
Parliamentarians are the elected representatives of the people, and because of this they generally reflect the diversity of opinion, culture, and beliefs present in the societies from which they come. In the past, this diversity was a source of conflict and exploitation. For instance, the apartheid system conditioned South Africans to think of difference in terms of “superior” and “inferior”. But now, our shift to a democratic dispensation has pushed us in a new direction – towards diversity, and the understanding that it is precisely in our diversity that we find our strength, or as our Constitution so eloquently puts it: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”.
Even so, Firoz Cachalia, MEC for Safety and Security in Gauteng and former Speaker of the Gauteng Provincial Legislature, argues that it is “important to find sources of common identity in all this diversity, in particular to find out what is common amongst us as South Africans”.
He sees the Constitution as one source of a common South African identity amid differences in culture, language, religion, beliefs and political affiliation. He says that although people find different meanings in the Constitution, because “the Constitution is a complex document containing competing considerations”, it is simultaneously an “expression of our complex diversity, as well as a source of our commonality as a nation”.
Cachalia believes the diversity in South African society is a source of strength, that the “contending forces that seek validation from the Constitution is a healthy development” and that “loyalty to the Constitution is a source of social cohesion”.
This view of diversity as a positive force is regarded as a given in our democratic system of government. African scholar Emmanuel Eze puts it this way:
“A democratic process is defined not by achievement of ideological or practical consensus on specific issues, but simply by the orderly securing of a framework for initiating, cultivating and sustaining disagreement and discussion, which is nurtured and cherished for their value and benefits as much as agreement and consensus are nurtured and cherished for their sake and benefits”.
A democratic system therefore not only accommodates a variety of perspectives, but, in fact, also draws on this diversity to enrich the political process.
Sandra Botha, the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, states that in the democratic South Africa “diversity is a fact of life… it is never static; it is a constantly evolving process… [and therefore] one should have a positive view of diversity and the potential it can unlock”.
If we see the democratic process as a framework for initiating and sustaining discussion and debate, it becomes clear that Parliament is perhaps the most important political institution in a functioning democracy.
It provides the forum from which matters of pressing national concern may be aired and vigorously debated from a variety of perspectives. The importance of discussion and debate in Parliament is expressed in the very word “Parliament”, which is derived from the French “parlé” (which translates as “to speak”).
Given the importance of Parliament in representing the will of the people and serving as a forum for dialogue, it is disturbing to note that some surveys suggest that confidence in South Africa’s Parliament has been steadily decreasing since the transition to democracy. In 2002, the latest data available, only one-third of respondents placed a high level of trust in Parliament (31 percent); this is down slightly from the 34 percent who felt this way in 2000 and more sharply from the 57 percent of 1998. In 2002, the data indicated that one in every five South Africans does not trust Parliament at all!
MP Vytjie Mentor, the chairperson of the ANC’s Women’s Caucus in Parliament, proposes that MPs address the issue of confidence in Parliament, through consistent dialogue with the public, because she says:
“This is very important in building trust in public representatives by the public [because] when the public is aware of where you are and what you are busy with, it is easier for them to trust you. MPs should also not be afraid to respond to difficult questions [because] when the public sees that you are ‘human’ too, it becomes easier to relate to MPs; and, secondly, by paying attention to their public conduct, because ‘as a collective and individually MPs need to earn the trust of the public and not demand it…’”
Tolerance and Inclusiveness
For diversity to become a positive force it is important that values and principles, such as tolerance and inclusiveness be applied. Tolerance can be defined as the appreciation of diversity and the ability to exercise a fair and objective attitude towards those whose opinions, practices and perspectives differ from our own. In agreeing with this sentiment, MP Sandra Botha states that “equality is not dependent on similarity, but diversity should be rested on equality”.
The problem with most debates is that while participants want their own voices to be heard, they are less inclined to want to listen to the views of others. It must not be forgotten that people have different backgrounds, different values and different social contexts – and that in the course of a debate the danger of intolerance and miscommunication could easily arise.
People could be alienated as a result of this – and withdraw from the process. For this situation to change, it is important for the principle of tolerance to be embraced. In essence, we should ensure that every view does count!
MP Andries van Niekerk states that:
“Approaches between Members of different cultures can sometimes vary. [He suggests that] we need to learn about each other; we need to learn how to speak with one another, so that we do not cause conflict. We need to expose those differences so that we don’t take exception to them. There is a lack of trust between parties, which stems from a lack of understanding. Therefore meeting socially outside the political party context would help to deal with the mistrust”.
MP Sybil Seaton, the Deputy Chief Whip of the IFP, puts it this way:
“A lot of intolerance comes down to a lack of experiences. Parties themselves have to take responsibility for inculcating a culture of tolerance among their members… [and] don’t just criticize the majority party for the sake of criticizing them. There is a lack of tolerance, but at different levels. [For example] at house committees the level of tolerance is far greater, because of the seniority of the Members”.
The values of inclusiveness and tolerance have always been part of African governance practices, long preceding the introduction of the institution of Parliamentary democracy in Africa during the 20th century. In many cases, these values are expressed through African idioms, such as, the Igbo saying Onwe gi onye bu Omada Omachara (“no one individual is Mother Wisdom”), or the Akan proverb that contends, “one head does not hold council”. These idioms emphasise the value of including a diversity of opinions and perspectives in governance processes. Among Tswana-speaking people, the stones of the “lekgotla” (place where the Tswana governing body gathered) were placed in a circle to signify unity and inclusiveness.
IFP Chief Whip Koos Van der Merwe relates his experiences as an MP in embracing the values of diversity and inclusiveness in the following way:
“I have been with the IFP for 13 years and the one important thing I learnt was never to say, ‘I know black people’. I grew up in the Free State, and I’ve studied Zulu history and I can speak a bit of Zulu. I respect their traditions and culture, but will never go so far as to say that I know black people. I know that they respect age, their leaders and authority. They also take time to trust you, but once you’ve won their trust, they would come to you with all kinds of problems”.
The importance of dialogue
A number of scholars have written about the meaning and significance of dialogue. And yet, in everyday speech we often use words such as “discuss”, “debate”, and “dialogue” interchangeably – even though there are important differences between “debating” and “engaging in dialogue”.
This section outlines the concept of dialogue and shows how important it is to achieve the vision of unity in diversity as expressed in our Constitution.
Often, when discussing or debating an issue, our intent centres on a will to demonstrate our intelligence, to outwit an adversary, or to win some political advantage . In this adversarial form of engagement; the aim is simply to convince others of a particular point of view, or to put over a point more convincingly than an opponent. While this form of interaction may, at best, lead to an agreement or a compromise, it probably will not give rise to anything creative . Parliaments across the globe often reflect interaction of an adversarial nature.
Dialogue, on the other hand, is fundamentally different.
Its intention goes beyond merely evoking argument. Indeed, it focuses strongly on the causes of communication barriers. It prompts people into discovering their prejudices – and to persuade them to analyse these and other assumptions, to help them find out what influences their beliefs and feelings. The focus should not be on outwitting an opponent or narrowly promoting one’s own perspective, but rather on finding a creative solution to the problem at hand – through a joint effort.
The success of a collaborative engagement is dependent on the principles discussed in this chapter, namely diversity, tolerance, inclusiveness, and a general respect for the validity of the opinion of others, even if you should disagree with that opinion.
In Parliament, there are myriad forums requiring sincere, frank and open dialogue in order to function properly. It is worth noting , however, that the aim of being frank and honest about our differences should always be aimed at finding a creative solution to the problem at hand. Our Constitution envisions a society in which South Africans are “united in our diversity”. To ensure the growth of such a society, MPs and MPLs should commit themselves to fostering a culture in which they are united in their shared goal of serving the people of South Africa.
MEC Firoz Cachalia argues that:
“It is very important to strengthen our parliamentary system so [that] it can exercise its oversight and accountability functions. But this cannot happen spontaneously; it requires resources such as time, leadership and institutional agreements. Curiously, it also requires consensus across all political parties as this is the kind of environment in which institutions can be built. Sometimes, the extreme manifestation of party-political contestation has undermined the possibilities for building the institution… Strong oversight and the strengthening of Parliament depend on people being prepared to take a long view and sometimes not be driven by party-political consideration”.
This sentiment is shared by MP Sandra Botha, who argues that “party discipline can stifle dialogue… [and undermine] open debate” between opposing Members of Parliament.”
MEC Cachalia suggests that “those representatives who belong to different political parties should [nevertheless] have a common loyalty to the institution of Parliament or the legislative principle of government”. This, he states, “sets the commonly embraced parameters for the expression of conflict, differences and diversity”.
Richard Mdakane, the Speaker of the Gauteng Legislature, argues that “Parliament and the Legislatures are an expression of South African desire for political participation. They represent the views, aspirations and hopes of the nation,” he argues.
Ultimately, therefore, the work of Parliament and the Legislature must be responsive to the needs of the people of South Africa.
This publication covers various aspects of the Parliamentary system in which open dialogue and tolerance towards diversity is of paramount importance. Specific chapters are dedicated to the rules and decorum of Parliament, the committee system, the constituency system, and the use of Parliament as a tool for greater global dialogue. The chapters address current practices, global best practice, and possible innovations to the Parliamentary system in order to increase the incidence and effectiveness of dialogue. In each of the chapters, the publication is enriched by the inclusion of interviews with Members of Parliament and Members of Provincial Legislatures.
The rules of decorum ensure that an orderly environment, conducive to open and constructive discussion, is maintained, both in committees and in other forums of Parliament. Chapter Two will look at how the rules of Parliament can play a meaningful role in facilitating open dialogue and critical reflection.
Chapter Three focuses on committees. In exercising their functions, committees provide a critical link between Parliament, civil society, and the general public. The emphasis of the Constitution in ensuring that South Africa remains a representative and participatory democracy suggests that the role of ordinary South Africans in the political system should go far beyond the mere act of voting. Whether during public hearings, or when interacting with members of the public during oversight visits (or any similar situation), it is essential that the principles that underlie the concept of dialogue be applied.
Chapter Four critically discusses South Africa’s unique and widely debated constituency system. Ideally, a constituency system should give the public a powerful tool to engage effectively in governance processes.
This should ensure that the voice of even the most marginalised is heard and that the concerns of the public at a grassroots level are expressed in Parliamentary processes. This chapter explores how this ideal picture matches with reality.
It also explores ways of ensuring greater dialogue and tolerance through activities and systems at the constituency level, presenting both current best practice and possible innovations.
In chapter Five, the gaze of the publication shifts from the grass-roots level to the broader international environment. The central question that this chapter seeks to address is: How can Parliaments be used as tools for greater global dialogue? Interaction between national Parliaments has long been a feature of the international political system. The Inter-Parliamentary Union, which provides a forum for discussion between most of the world’s Parliaments, is one of the oldest multinational organisations, older even than the United Nations.
In Africa itself, there have been exciting developments on the international level in the form of various regional Parliamentary organisations – and, most notably, the Pan African Parliament.
In the final chapter, we investigate the changing nature of Parliaments and their activities. Some of the main conclusions of the preceding chapters will be revisited, looking specifically at where developing trends may lead us. The chapter also addresses the ever-changing environment in which legislatures operate, specifically looking at how information communication technology can be employed to ensure greater participation in Parliamentary activities, in this way allowing a wider variety of inputs.
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