Lessons from South Africa: parliamentary conscience and the courage to rebel
Prior to the motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma in South Africa’s National Assembly, former Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, among others, urged the African National Congress (ANC) MPs to be guided by their conscience, implying that they should break ranks with their party and vote with the opposition.
The thrust of Gordhan’s argument was that under Zuma the presidency had become corrupt and morally compromised. Therefore a vote against Zuma’s continuance in office would be in the national interest.
The further implication was that voting for Zuma to go would be in the long-term interest of the ANC. The reasoning behind this was that, unless the party is to return to the values for which the liberation struggle was fought, it will wreak its own destruction.
The counter-argument by the ANC hierarchy was that ANC MPs were bound by obligation to the voters who had elected them to vote the way the party instructed. MPs in the South African system are not elected as individuals, but merely as members of their party. To vote against the party line would be to overturn the logic of democracy.
A further argument put forward by ANC speakers in the debate was that the opposition was seeking unconstitutional “regime change”. This was quite correctly challenged. The opposition pointed out that the motion had been put in terms of the constitution, and that they were seeking to replace the President and not the ANC government.
And yet, although the ANC argument was manifestly “rubbish” (to quote Wits academic Ivor Sarakinsky in commentary on a local television stations eNCA), the debate highlighted a very real tension at the heart of South Africa’s democracy. Should MPs have the right to vote according to their conscience?
The role of the political party
Universally, the rise of political parties alongside the expansion of parliamentary democracy inevitably came at the cost of the independence of individual MPs. It is rare today for any individual not belonging to a political party to secure a seat in any parliament. Belonging to a political party has become a necessity except in the most exceptional of circumstances.
In turn, belonging to a political party requires that MPs or representatives sign up to a Faustian deal. If they want to progress politically, they have to follow the party line, even on occasions where they disagree with party policy.
This is entrenched in the communist notion of ‘democratic centralism’ – once the party has ‘democratically’ made its decision, the individual is politically bound to implement it.
In practice, however, party systems are not always so rigid as this implies.
Parliamentary histories are stuffed not merely with internal party rebellions but individual MPs voting against their own governments. Internal rebellions are prone to occur where party leaderships lose the confidence of their backbenchers (who are usually relaying extra-parliamentary discontent). And individual MPs may choose to vote against their party’s line – often for religious or ethical reasons. They may also do so because they see themselves as representatives of constituencies or interests that are offended by party policy.
Political parties handle such problems in different ways. Often they will seek to fudge policies so as to contain intra-party differences. Alternatively, minority factions within parties may grow to become a majority and secure a change in party policy.
Where parties are split down the middle, party leaderships may try to resolve difficulties by suspending party directives and allowing a free vote (as during the Brexit referendum debate). On key issues, individual MPs who threaten to vote against their parties may be bribed by promises of bounty for their constituents or by compromises made to relevant policy proposals, although ultimately the threat of expulsion from the party lies in waiting.
Individual MPs may also be buoyed up by the honour that accrues to them if they are perceived to be standing their ground on matters of political or moral principle. They may earn the respect of their political opponents as much as the brick-bats of their party colleagues.
Challenge for the ANC
The variations, inconsistencies and flexibility built into modern party systems clearly stands as a challenge to the contemporary ANC mantra that MPs are slaves to their party’s requirements. Yet the ANC position is by no means without logic. It is indisputable that under South Africa’s electoral system, as it stands, MPs are elected as party representatives and not as individuals.
National-list proportional representation allows for no individuality of candidates. Voters do not have individual MPs. They simply vote for a party. Under this system MPs are allowed minimal scope for conscience.
But, ultimately, the ANC has no answer to the popular expectation that, when pressed on major issues, MPs should vote for what they think is right. They should vote against that which they think is wrong. They must be guided by their conscience rather than their pockets.
Voters seem to expect that when MPs refer to each other as ‘honourable’ that they should indeed embody ‘honour’. Yet equally, the public distaste for blatant political opportunism, as displayed during the floor-crossing episodes of yesteryear when minority party MPs jumped ship, mainly to join the ANC for personal and financial reasons, it is clear that voters expect MPs to respect the outcomes of elections.
Discipline yes, but courage too
Seemingly there is no consistent set of principles and practices which will satisfactorily resolve the tension between party demands and individual conscience. Yet what does become clear is that there is much more scope for flexibility, tolerance of dissent, and – yes – freedom of conscience in systems where MPs are directly responsible to constituents rather than, as in South Africa, they are wholly accountable to their parties.
Is this why the ANC so forthrightly rejected the recommendations of the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform? The commission recommended a mixed electoral system, whereby MPs would be elected on party platforms but from multi-member constituencies.
There is no escaping the necessity of party systems to get the job of government done. Voters understand the need for party discipline. Yet as the vote of no confidence also shows, they also want MPs to have the courage to rebel.