Let there be peace... in Parliament?
As the dust finally begins to settle on the chaos and mess that has been the National Assembly over the last two weeks, a broader picture is finally beginning to emerge of the very real dynamics and problems the leaderships of the various parties are facing. In the old days, just before the May elections, it was relatively simple. The ANC could use its muscle to win arguments, the DA could shout and everyone knew Cope was already dope. And of course, no one was watching Parliament, so it didn't really matter very much. Now things are beginning to change. And, strangely enough, it may mean more consensus.
One of the recurring sights in the Parliamentary precinct last week was of MPs huddled in caucuses. The various parties would disappear into a room somewhere, the doors would be firmly shut, and the leaking would start immediately. Meanwhile, the whips of the different parties would be in another room, trying to work some sort of deal.
This found full expression in the Sunday papers, with claims of "MPs revolt against Cyril" and "Maimane under fire in DA over peace deal" (behind the Sunday Times paywall, sorry). Clearly the leaderships of both the ANC and the DA had their work cut out for them in trying to control the situation. They would have understood each other's problems. The DA MPs are emboldened, feeling that there are more of them than ever before; that they've won some sort of moral victory over the police drama ten days ago, and that for once, the ANC needs them to actually keep government going. (On Thursday night a deadline was running out for a Parliamentary vote on the budgetary process, which meant opposition parties were able to use this as leverage to block the ANC's bid to suspend the EFF MPs for chanting "Pay Back the Money".)
But their leadership is also aware that the DA's natural constituency, being the middle-class grouping that it is, would not appreciate too much obstructive behaviour. DA voters generally don't vote for people who use physical violence for any reason in the National Assembly, so they may not get away with it again.
The ANC's leadership has a similar problem. Their MPs want action against Julius Malema, and they've wanted it for some time now. Nothing seems to get under the ANC's skin like their former favourite young lion, so emotions may have been running high. But then it's their leaders who would be stuck with the blame, should the machinery of government come to a halt.
In the end, this meant that both sides had to rein in their more extreme elements to reach a deal. Which is why they both face some anger from their MPs.
It could well turn out that the events of the last few days are an accurate prediction of how things are going to be in the medium term. The fact is, South Africa needs a functioning Parliament, and our politicians need a functioning Parliament. For the first time we are seeing the opposition being able to properly obstruct the ANC, and the ANC running out of ways to counter that obstruction.
Wednesday night's debate brought by the DA to censure President Jacob Zuma for not coming to answer questions four times in the Parliamentary year is a good example. While the ANC would always win it on the numbers, it's a hard argument for them to win through facts and logic. The English in the rules of Parliament is pretty plain: the president must come four times a year. Even their main counter - that the DA had not complained when Thabo Mbeki broke the same rule - while a good point, is not enough to win the moral argument. Unfortunately for the ANC, Parliament's viewership figures are probably higher than they've ever been, which means that more people than ever before will be aware of this.
This means that for the leaders of these parties, it is going to be more important than ever to find ways to work together. This may well mean more compromises than we've seen in the past. But this path is also fraught with difficulties. Because the extremes of both parties are also going to have to calm down a little. And they're clearly in no mood for it.
One of the best jibes directed at the EFF and the DA last week came from an ANC MP who claimed that she was watching their "romance" with great interest, and hoped it would end in a "beautiful inter-racial marriage". It showed up, in a way, how different the two organisations are. While they can cooperate easily on the Parliamentary stage, their constituencies are so divergent that their unholy alliance can hardly be permanent. The DA's constituency is not an extreme one, while the EFF can be as outrageous as it likes. It campaigned on an anti-establishment ticket, and anti-establishment is what its voters are getting. This means that they can continue with their current path for quite some time.
This makes it difficult to see this "beautiful marriage" being a lasting union. Certainly it's lasted longer than the DA's romance with Mamphela Ramphele. But the chances are both parties will be looking for Billy Gundelfinger's number soon. The ANC's job now is to try to bring about that moment soon.
It shouldn't be too difficult; there are plenty of issues on which the ANC and the DA will agree, but the EFF will not. All that needs to happen is for the ANC to introduce something that the DA will vote in favour of, while poking the EFF a little. It would be easy to imagine Malema shouting, "Anyone who votes for this is a tool of white imperialists", while Mmusi Maimane stands around pretending not to notice.
So at some point, in the interests of governance, the DA is likely to have to throw its hat in with the ANC. After all, they are both parties of the establishment, and the EFF is a threat to both of them, which means that their interests will align.
That is probably a good thing for South Africa. Once you take some of the toxic issues brought up by Zuma from the mix, it is healthy to have political parties that can do some business together. It means that they have to agree, hammer out deals, spend time with each other and generally, hopefully reduce the tensions between them. Which may reduce Parliament's viewership figures - but is likely to lead to better government.
_Stephen Grootes is host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on _ Twitter: @StephenGrootes
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.