A plague on both your houses

William Saunderson-Meyer.

William Saunderson-Meyer.

South African politicians are notoriously bad at accountability. It’s always someone else’s fault, usually that of your opponent.

In Western democracies, however, politicians actually do still resign for reasons of accountability. This week the British Immigration Minister, Mark Harper, resigned because his Colombian cleaner proved to be an illegal immigrant.

Harper had checked her credentials, but was duped by forged Home Office documents. In his letter of resignation, Harper wrote: “Although I complied with the law at all times, I consider that as immigration minister … I should hold myself to a higher standard than expected of others”. Quaint, but worthy of emulation. Over the past 20 years not a single South African politician has resigned as a matter of honour, or dishonour for that matter. Of course, were the practice to catch on, both sides of the National Assembly would be seriously depleted. This week’s controversial march by the DA to the threshold of the ANC’s Johannesburg headquarters apparently proved a terribly important political point. Unfortunately, none of the participants can agree what that point is, and it’s not what they think.

DA leader Helen Zille said that the march, during which the police had to fire stun grenades to quell a number of brick and petrol bomb throwing ANC supporters, “proved” the ANC is a violent organisation that doesn’t respect the Constitution and “can’t be trusted to lead a democracy”.

ANC deputy secretary-general Jesse Duarte said the march “proved” the DA is unpatriotically provocative and that the ANC will always lead because it is the “only organisation with a background of steady leadership”.

Both sets of “proof” are vacuous twaddle.

Let’s unravel the conundrum from the other end of the string: any group or party has a constitutional right to march; it is the job of the police to ensure that the right can be exercised freely and safely; it also is outrageous how the ANC alliance, with a nod and wink, has at times encouraged a thuggish response to those

who dared “provoke” by entering the territory of a party that claims it has a divine mandate

to govern.

But while it might be courageous to illustrate the intolerance of your opponents by exposing your membership to potential violence, it is also dangerous. Especially for what was a cynical publicity stunt. It is risky bordering on reckless of the DA, during the run-up to elections in which political passions are running high, to flirt with this kind street confrontation. The last time there was a march on the ANC headquarters, by the Inkatha Freedom Party in 1994, 19 people were shot dead.

By that measure, the DA must be surprised, perhaps a little disappointed: almost exemplary, even-handed policing and no DA injuries.

The ANC, for its part, has proved that it can, when the eyes of the world media is on it, control its street fighters relatively well. It was to this end that Duarte and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa were at hand to keep the hot-heads chilled. But had there been agents provocateur on either sides of the police line that kept the two groups apart, the march could have played out with horrifying consequences. Had that happened, the DA and the ANC would both have been to blame. Neither would have admitted it.

today in print