A conservative analysis of Trump’s rise (from 2016)

WE SHOULD be worried about the rise of Donald Trump, even if he doesn’t make it all the way to the White House.

Decent Americans are rightly concerned about Trump’s dalliance with white supremacy, his insults against women, Muslims and Mexicans, and his enthusiasm for torture. But the US political system contains reassuring checks and balances when it comes to domestic policy.

In foreign policy, by contrast, presidents can make big and irreversible mistakes, and there are few institutional constraints. Although Trump has been sceptical about US military intervention, his vulgar nationalism could escalate peaceful conflicts into violent ones. His trade protectionism, and his refusal to fund the US’s “world policeman” role, could usher in a period of economic uncertainty and geopolitical insecurity.

He probably can’t win. But pollsters, most of whom insist a majority of Americans will never vote for him, have been getting pretty much everything wrong. Unpredictable turnouts of motivated citizens may outlast the primary stage. How can the Trump phenomenon be explained?

Former US treasury secretary Lawrence Summers says Trump’s rise reflects “the political psychology of frustration”. Ordinary people see him as their champion in a world that is leaving them behind.

Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan, by contrast, blames Republican Party leaders’ “wild obstructionism”, their ridicule of institutions such as the Supreme Court, and their racialised contempt for US President Barack Obama.

Trumpism, however, is far from just a US phenomenon. Long-established democracies have been plagued for decades by antiparty populism and discontent with the political establishment. Scholars have struggled since the 1990s to understand why once-respected politicians now rank alongside sex workers — or even journalists — in the popular low-esteem stakes.

Representative democracy turns on the illusion that citizens understand what their politicians are doing and how well they are doing it. This mirage was once sustained by influential intermediary institutions — the news media and political parties — and by grand narratives that together made the world comprehensible. The idea of the Cold War explained foreign and defence policies, while prosperity, low unemployment and a growing welfare state were presented as the outcomes of elite policy choices.

But the Cold War is over, and idealised models of economic management and the welfare state have turned into a spaghetti bowl of perverse consequences and opaque regulatory institutions. The news media and political parties are increasingly polarising and hollow.

Meanwhile, international integration has undercut assumptions about the character of “the nation”. The result has been citizen confusion and anti-establishment politics. Political entrepreneurs have seized on the opportunities this presents. A new generation of strongman politicians, such as Narendra Modi in India, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, are perfecting the use of vulgar nationalism to cement domestic electoral coalitions.

Trump’s rise suggests this strategy could work in established liberal capitalist democracies too. Market economies have undermined many of the precapitalist institutional foundations that allowed them to flourish: a virtuous citizenry, stable families, healthy communities and societal trust. Liberal societies have, meanwhile, been destroying some of the prerequisites for democracy that had been bequeathed by the predemocratic era: civility, deference and respect.

Alarmed and confused citizens are sure they have a right to choose. But, increasingly, they do not know how, or to whom, they should listen, or who can help them make sense of their world.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

Zuma in Moscow (from 2014)

RUMOURS have surrounded President Jacob Zuma’s trip to Moscow this week, given the visit’s extended duration, the absence of any official programme, the mention of “rest periods”, and the fact that Zuma did not bring senior ministers with him.

Russia’s state-owned nuclear corporation, Rosatom, has been at the centre of such speculation as a result of the estimated R1-trillion cost of the company’s proposed nuclear plants in South Africa. Critics have complained that Russian President Vladimir Putin might use Zuma’s unsupervised visit to exert improper influence over him. Such claims, however, are almost certainly false.

First, much can be learnt from a five-day visit to this beautiful country. It is a resource economy that tragically lacks dynamic manufacturing industries. Its leaders manipulate anti-western sentiment to obscure their own corruption. And it has turned into a party-state run by a secretive security apparatus.

Russia is very similar.

Second, Moscow is an excellent place for an overworked leader to rest. On past visits, Zuma has stayed in the presidential suite of the President Hotel in Moscow. Run by the department of affairs of the Russian president himself, the hotel was built to facilitate the “foreign policy activities” of the highest structures of the Soviet state. The presidential suite enjoys two bathrooms (one with Jacuzzi and shower) and a safe large enough to accommodate bulging briefcases.

The hotel is in the heart of Moscow, allowing Zuma to visit Red Square, the Kremlin, Lenin’s Mausoleum, and the historical Alexander Garden.

Who can blame him if he takes in some delightful rural idylls, too, such as the Mashinostroitelny Zavod facility of Rosatom’s nuclear fuel subsidiary company, or perhaps the picturesque Kurchatov Institute nuclear research centre?

As a result of the privatisation of the Russian state, further unique tourism opportunities abound. Country of Tourism Ltd, for example, partners with the Sokol air base to give tourists an “edge of space experience” in a MiG-29 jet that Zuma might enjoy, and all for just €13,500 a trip.

Third, Russian policy makers reportedly want to learn from South Africa’s renowned policy successes. State airline Aeroflot, for example, recently launched a budget airline strikingly similar to the internationally celebrated Mango.

Readers will be familiar with the joke about Aeroflot’s in-flight service: “Do you want a meal?” says the stewardess. “What are the options?” says the passenger. “Yes or no,” says the stewardess.

There would seem to be opportunities for synergistic learning or even a shared training facility for the two airlines’ cabin crews.

Fourth, Zuma is believed to have taken an interest in a public health initiative in Russia — the closing down of dozens of McDonald’s outlets around the country after staged “sanitary inspections” by the Federal Consumer Protection Service.

The crackdown has been interpreted as a product of anti-US sentiment stirred up during the conflict in Ukraine. It is believed that Zuma may soon feel tempted to launch a similar crackdown against the Shanduka-run McDonald’s franchise in South Africa.

Finally, it is impossible to imagine that a politician as astute as Zuma would expose himself to ridicule by travelling to Moscow, unaccompanied by senior colleagues, to receive personal financial inducements.

As Moscow-based investigative journalist John Helmer has shown, payments made to influence politicians or government officials in any country can be easily channelled to their relatives by the huge state banks and other financial institutions that are involved in the financing of nuclear power partnerships.

The nuclear procurement is unaffordable and irrational, and it will be a sad testimony to the decay of the African National Congress if it is pushed through. If such a deal is done, Putin will be greeted on his next state visit to South Africa by protesters, shouting vyplatit’ den’gi! (“Pay back the money!”).

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

Some thoughts on the EFF and parliament (from 2014)

THE Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF’s) campaign for sartorial freedom has brought a welcome upsurge in media coverage of SA’s legislatures.

A ban on overalls makes no sense. Like veal calves, MPs are highly restricted in movement, spend most of their lives indoors and are force-fed starchy food. Their exercise options are limited to a stroll across the road to Adult World or a taxi ride to a Cape Town restaurant, where more fattening-up awaits them.

If bright one-piece suits were made compulsory, MPs could simply expand like the hot air balloons they already so closely resemble.

MPs could be colour-coded by party, and waddle happily around the corridors of Parliament like glorious red, blue or yellow penguins: a true rainbow Parliament.

Sources claim that hostility to one-piece overalls originates with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is rumoured to have understandably confused the front bench of the National Assembly with the first-class cabin of an international airliner.

At the back of the chamber, overweight MPs watch movies on their smartphones, and keep their handbags under the seats in front of them. Towards the front of the house, in more capacious parliamentary business class berths, sit even more overweight ministers — the sole exception being a glamorous pouting minister dubbed “Barbie Doll” (also known as Fikile Mbalula).

Ramaphosa is, meanwhile, seated at the front in first class. It would be no surprise to see him reclining his seat, and selecting a fine wine or his choice of galley-prepared food from a passing air stewardess. The deputy president reportedly tried during the recent state of the nation speech to transform his seat into a fully flat bed, and asked an usher to bring his one-piece overnight slumber suit, all the while complaining that EFF economy-class passengers already had theirs.

Meanwhile, South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande is sulking because the EFF has stolen his favourite colour. The opposition party, however, cannot switch to blue jumpsuits because that colour is reserved for skydivers, and for leaders of the Democratic Alliance such as David Maynier and Helen Zille, who are unable to dress themselves in normal clothes.

If opposition parties eventually embrace the EFF’s sartorial revolution, and don overalls of their own, they will need to remember one important piece of fashion advice: horizontal stripes on your romper suit are not a good idea if you have a full figure.

Assorted parliamentary speakers have launched a concerted campaign against the EFF’s clothing choices, their most spurious rationale being an offence against “decorum”. So important is decorum to African National Congress (ANC) leaders that they are willing, in order to protect it, to send police officers into provincial legislatures to evict elected representatives.

The idea of decorum has provided a pretext for an insidious campaign against parliamentary free expression. National Council of the Provinces chair Thandi Modise curiously objected to unexceptionable remarks about Blade Nzimande’s political style — it was not as though someone claimed he used to be a supporter of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

This week, ANC deputy chief whip Doris Dlakude made the still more farcical ruling that it is unparliamentary to describe a fellow MP as a “thief”. (It is fine for an MP to be a thief, apparently, it is just not proper to say that they are.)

“Extremist and offensive behaviour,” the deputy speaker insisted, “will certainly activate the use of the rules”, because such codes “protect the dignity of everyone seated in this house”. MPs are obliged, in Dlakude’s view, to promote “cohesion” in debates.

EFF MPs who can see which way the wind is blowing should switch to orange jumpsuits. When police officers arrest them for failing to promote social cohesion, or for causing an affront to ministerial dignity, at least they won’t have to change clothes when they arrive at Pollsmoor Prison.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

The merits of Zweli Mkhize (from 2013)

IT IS unlikely that President Jacob Zuma will retire to his Nkandla security estate before his second term expires in 2019. His successor will probably aim to serve out two full terms as African National Congress (ANC) and state president. For these reasons, age may play a significant role in the forthcoming leadership succession process.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was born in 1949. If she were to be elected ANC president at the movement’s 2017 conference, she would be 68 years old. She would be 70 by the time she reached the Union Buildings. Cyril Ramaphosa is no spring chicken. Born in November 1952, he would be ANC president at 65 and state president at 66.

At 52, ANC Gauteng chairman Paul Mashatile is just young enough to bide his time. (In any event, his province’s current marginalisation makes a 2017 run impossible.) Malusi Gigaba was born only in 1971.

Zweli Mkhize, however, is a man in a hurry. Born in 1956, he probably cannot afford to wait for a rival to serve even a single term.

The present dominance of KwaZulu-Natal may also be a passing phenomenon and he will want to fully exploit the coherent political machine he helped to build.

Mkhize undoubtedly has the demeanour of a potential president. Like Ramaphosa, he came from a humble background and internalised a strong sense of personal discipline. The child of labour tenants in Willowfountain, he was rescued from farm labour by the sacrifices of his family and by his keen intelligence.

He is a moderniser but he has negotiated the traditional politics of KwaZulu-Natal with great dexterity. He is proud of his heritage as a descendant of the Mkhizes of Nkandla.

He claims that he cannot wait to retire from politics and devote all his time to his real passion: breeding Nguni cows in the thornveld.

His interest in politics was awakened by the protests of one of Pietermaritzburg’s most extraordinary eccentrics, the late David Cecil Oxford Matiwane in apartheid times.

The Latin-spouting Matiwane would arrive in town dressed in a suit to which he had pinned dozens of political pamphlets. He would encourage people to take them off his suit and keep them and arrest almost invariably followed. Mkhize was awestruck.

He qualified as a doctor despite his student political commitments, and he completed his internship in Durban in 1983.

He worked briefly at Edendale Hospital before going into exile in 1986. He practised medicine and worked for the ANC in Swaziland and Zimbabwe, before returning to South Africa in 1991.

He rose steadily from ANC regional treasurer in the violence-wracked Natal Midlands (where he was involved in peacemaking in the 1980s and 1990s) to provincial ANC chairman.

He was MEC for health from 1994 to 2004 and formed a close political alliance with Zuma. After a term as finance and economic development MEC, he became premier of KwaZulu-Natal in 2009. At Mangaung, he was elected the ANC’s treasurer-general.

Mkhize has been deeply immersed in the intricate game of provincial patronage politics, but he has escaped major scandal. He was recently attacked for spending R1.2m on 45 private jet trips when he was premier but disarmed critics by agreeing to repay the money if asked to do so by his successor.

He appears to be equally comfortable with diverse constituencies, from traditional leaders to businesspeople and the media. He can speak coherently for 30 minutes without notes. His family is a model of sanity and charm despite the obvious demands made on them by political life.

Mkhize has an interest in public policy and his views on economic and social policy seem to be broadly orthodox or conservative. He backs the National Development Plan.

He exhibits only one weakness. Despite his age, he is essentially a provincial politician who was elected to the national executive committee as late as 1997. It remains to be seen if he can use the office of treasurer-general to cement national political alliances. He will be hard to stop.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

Spiritual tourism in South Africa (from 2013)

TOURISM is one of South Africa’s fastest-growing economic sectors, a big foreign exchange earner and a major contributor to employment. But Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk has recently highlighted major challenges — including air route capacity constraints, high fuel prices and visa processing delays — that may hamper further success. Domestic tourism, he observed, must also be boosted if the industry is to expand sustainably. As visitor numbers have increased, however, prestige attractions such as the Kruger National Park, Table Mountain and Robben Island have become congested. Cultural villages, rock paintings and traditional museums have little appeal to first-time domestic tourists.

A partnership between the Department of Tourism and the Industrial Development Corporation is evaluating the potential for a budget resort chain for relatively low-income earners. Meanwhile, Van Schalkwyk plans to extend the Sho’t Left campaign and encourage supply-side diversification. Now rumours are circulating that he has identified four niche opportunities for heritage product development.

The first involves an expansion of cultural tourism. The present bias in favour of “African cultural villages” in rural areas has been revisited. The Sho’t Left campaign will instead showcase a “Red October Show” in which bare-breasted popular icons Steve Hofmeyr and Dan Roodt will blend traditional music and the “weed dance” to expose the “inhumane slaughter and oppression” of the white Afrikaner. In order to attract the burgeoning black middle class, a new theme park in Cape Town’s southern suburbs will enable visitors to view “Constantia ladies” in their natural habitat and reveal the mystery of what they do all day. A proposed Gupta Compound tour will incorporate Saxonwold helicopter rides, bush sightings of furtive ministers, and much-sought-after free copies of The New Age newspaper.

A second conservation-based programme involves a partnership between the departments of tourism and mineral resources. “Green tourism” champions complain that Pan African Resources (a company in which African National Congress deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s Shanduka has a 26% stake) has been awarded prospecting rights inside the 27,000ha Barberton Nature Reserve, Mpumalanga’s only potential World Heritage Site. Now Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu has defused such criticism by proposing amendments to the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act that will boost investor uncertainty and so terminate all new investment in the resources sector. In this way, she hopes to protect green tourism jewels such as the central Karoo for future generations.

Third, consultants plan to supplement the “Big Five” with the “Top Six”. According to proposals, one new tour will begin at picturesque Nkandla and follow a “Top Six Battlefields Route” linking the struggle sites of Polokwane and Mangaung. The game drive will conclude with the spectacle of the giant African political elephant (Loxodonta Mantashe Africana) marauding across the plains of Boksburg. This magnificent animal, the largest mammal in the world, is more than 4m wide, drinks 70l-100l of water a day and communicates by means of low-frequency rumbles that can be picked up more than 9km away.

A final initiative will capitalise on the global boom in “spiritual tourism”. Officials recently travelled to Lourdes, France, a small town that has become a place of mass pilgrimage because of the healing properties of its spring water. Consultants for the Department of Tourism believe that section 79 of the Correctional Matters Amendment Act, governing the granting of medical parole in South Africa, could be used to tap into this enormous market.

The Roman Catholic Church has certified only 68 miraculous healing events at Lourdes, despite visits from more than 200-million pilgrims since 1860. Provisional analysis by Statistics South Africa indicates that a far higher proportion of tourists granted medical parole certification in Pretoria could expect to enjoy a miraculous recovery from their ailments.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

The folly of good news quotas (from 2013)

THE state broadcaster’s acting chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, recently reduced hardened reporters to tears, when he observed that positive news stories help nation-building: “You are building the future of the kids.” Guptarian media celebrity Jimmy Manyi equally movingly explained that creating a country with evenly dispersed coloured citizens is hard when “a lot of work that government does isn’t considered newsworthy”. But it has been another difficult week for patriotic journalists trying to fill their 70% “good news” quota.

Fortunately three resources are available for newshounds struggling to escape the chains of negativity. First, the government is generating a blizzard of selective pre-election statistics: adult literacy has soared; malnutrition has halved; access to water and sanitation has doubled; and so on. Second, the Government Communication and Information System’s South Africa News offers living proof that a “good news” approach can work. President Jacob Zuma’s “Senegal visit”, the organ incisively commented this week, “was a great success!” Every day, fresh headlines bring to life fascinating stories ignored by the mainstream media: “Big boom in Switzerland’s SA investments!” “SA, Kazakhstan to boost relations!”

The achievements of maligned Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies are also, at last, properly showcased: “DTI initiative pays off for Limpopo company”; “Entrepreneurship centre for Butterworth students”. The minister’s accomplishments (like the minister’s speeches) simply go on and on.

Third, the African National Congress (ANC) is a great font of liberationist good news. It has taken big steps to liberate South Africans from exploitation by international capital (in particular by BMW). It is also emancipating citizens from sin. Under the Higher Power, Thabo Mbeki, any ANC relationship with God would have represented an unnecessary duplication. After 2007, however, the original Supreme Being was back in charge, selecting a humble Zulu pastor to be Number One, personally picking out the chief justice from his flock, and elevating the deeply spiritual Cyril Ramaphosa (who earlier this year told Pentecostal Holiness churchgoers in Rustenburg that Christians like himself must become the country’s “moral conscience”) to the ANC’s deputy presidency.

Women’s liberation is another wellspring of positivity. ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete, unelected AgangSA life president Mamphela Ramphele, and all the president’s wives, have all been decisively freed from material deprivation.

There is admittedly tension between the ANC’s twin goals of spiritual and gender liberation. Religious activists are apparently clamouring for the righteous Ramaphosa to become state deputy president next year. They observe that only Ramaphosa combines financial management expertise, an excellent short game and profound godliness.

Radical feminists in the ANC Women’s League, by contrast, have been shouting: “We want one of the president’s wives to succeed him!” Their campaign is modelled on the world’s most advanced banana republic, the US, where Democratic Party activists insist the next incumbent should be Hillary Clinton, the present wife of a former president. In order to avoid accusations of nepotism, the ANC may opt instead for the former wife of the present president. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, after all, has already vanquished HIV/AIDS, defeated western imperialism, turned around the Home the Department of Affairs in one month, and transformed the African Union into a dominant actor in global affairs. Speculation about her prospects is now so rampant it has even reached the ears of national newspaper editors.

Confusion in the league this week suggests this issue has suddenly become very sensitive. On Monday, league president Angie Motshekga reportedly described the search for a female leader as “futile”. Later in the week, however, a different spokeswoman insisted there was “absolutely no truth in the reports that the ANC Women’s League has said South Africa is not ready to have a female president”. For Ramaphosa, at least, this may not be entirely good news.

 Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

Lawyer jokes (from 2013)

AMID the general doom and gloom about skills in South Africa, it is often supposed that the country simply does not have enough lawyers. According to the Law Society of South Africa, the reality is rather different.

Over the past 15 years, undergraduate enrolments in law programmes have almost doubled, articles of clerkship have mushroomed and the number of practising registered attorneys has increased by more than half to 20,000.

Despite this success story, the legal profession continues to enjoy an uneven reputation.

The ethics of our most prominent legal professionals are constantly questioned in the media. Scrutiny may be especially harsh when, like presidential legal adviser Michael Hulley, the lawyer in question happens to be black.

Challenges of affordability and access further mar the legal profession’s public image. Senior counsel can charge upwards of R50,000 a day for their services, creating the perception, in the words of a former chairman of the Cape Bar, of a silks’ “feeding trough”. Even candidate attorneys in small firms can bill R1,000 for an hour’s work.

Citizens earning less than R5,500 a month can ostensibly access legal aid, but the government provides only about R1.5bn a year to fund such services. This money is spread thinly because almost 500,000 citizens face criminal charges at present.

Resentment of high fees may explain the aggression that typifies popular lawyer jokes. Question: what should you do if you run over a lawyer? Answer: back over him just to be sure. Question: how do you save a drowning lawyer? Answer: take your foot off his head.

Race, once again, is an issue. Highly paid white senior counsel are typically lauded by the newspapers for their allegedly astonishing analytical powers. Dali Mpofu, by contrast, has been lambasted for seeking payment of the modest sum of R17,000 a day, no doubt a reasonable consideration given his inestimable capabilities.

The profession has been slow to improve access to legal services. There is little pro bono work, and lawyers have failed to champion postqualification internships in community service. Unjustifiable barriers to entry, moreover, exclude foreign lawyers and international law firms from competing in the domestic legal services sector.

The central issue, of course, is transformation. The recent dismissal of advocate Paul Hoffman’s complaint against Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, stemming from a speech the latter delivered in July on judicial transformation, will hopefully encourage reflection on this matter. Lawyers are still overwhelmingly white; briefing patterns, in the public and private sectors, still perpetuate discrimination.

As matters stand, citizens have little sympathy for lawyers of all races. When inebriated high court Judge Nkola Motata crashed his Jaguar into the wall of a Hurlingham property in 2007, many cruel jokes were circulated. Question: what do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 100? Answer: Your Honour.

But international studies have shown that lawyers are often heavy drinkers. They are more likely than almost any other professional to get into a car crash. Their suicide rate, according to one Canadian study, is six times that of the general population. And lawyers everywhere are susceptible to episodes of serious depression.

None of this is surprising. Legal practitioners cannot succeed in their work without suppressing human considerations of fairness and efficiency. People enjoy autonomy in the workplace, but lawyers are constrained and tormented by the law itself, as well as by the demands of legal regulation. Because they are at the service of their clients, they must ignore their deepest moral intuitions and pursue objectives and values that may be repugnant to them.

For all these reasons, citizens really should not spread jokes that deepen negative stereotypes of the profession. To take one reprehensible example: Question: how can you tell when a lawyer is lying? Answer: his lips are moving.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

Presidential enquiries usually change nothing (from 2013)

AN unfortunate misunderstanding prevails in South Africa’s public life: citizens labour under the false impression that a presidential commission of inquiry is meant to uncover the truth. The commission of inquiry, an institution found in most Commonwealth countries, is an ad hoc investigation initiated by a head of state. An inquiry is typically appointed for one of four reasons.

First, it can help a president evade responsibility for a tough decision. Typical inquiry subjects in Commonwealth countries include the treatment of ethnic minorities and the siting of airports or nuclear power stations. Political leaders who are unwilling to take electoral flak by defending hard policy choices can pass responsibility on to an allegedly “expert” and “neutral” body.

A commission also allows a leader to garner “objective support” and quasi-judicial credibility for a decision he has already taken.

Second, and here the Farlam Commission comes to mind, an inquiry can protect a government from popular outrage. As Anthony Downs observed in his 1972 study of the “issue-attention cycle”, human beings cannot sustain interest for long, not even in the most appalling human tragedies. Deferring judgment allows guilty parties time to get their stories straight. Findings can be couched in legal jargon and published in multivolume sets to render them inaccessible. By the time a report comes out, public emotion has invariably subsided.

A third motivation for appointing a commission is to dissipate blame. As Herbert Hart and Tony Honoré explained in their classic 1959 study, Causation in the Law, we ordinarily ascribe responsibility for a crime or disaster by imagining a chain of causes and effects that led to it. We do not select any old background conditions. Instead we search for those “free, informed, and voluntary actions” without which the event in question would not have occurred. (Sometimes, it is true, we also look for accidents.)

What citizens want to know about Marikana is fairly straightforward: who took the free, informed, and voluntary decisions that led to the massacre?

A commission of inquiry, however, is designed to bring general background conditions to the fore — to turn a hunt for culpable actors into a general sociological and historical investigation into all of the myriad circumstances that ultimately resulted in a “tragedy”. Should such an inquiry inadvertently stumble towards a guilty party, it can be brought rapidly to a close, on the grounds that it has already exceeded the duration of four months specified in its terms of reference.

The final motivation for an inquiry is to attack political enemies.

The Seriti Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of Fraud, Corruption, Impropriety or Irregularity in the Strategic Defence Procurement Packages could be just such an inquiry.

The terms of reference direct undue attention to relatively trivial matters: are the arms being used? have offsets been realised? The avowed search for “improper influence” in the award of contracts is likely to confirm only that the “consultants” who advised international arms companies benefited handsomely from doing so.

Someone who is safely in the grave and so cannot easily respond — perhaps former defence minister Joe Modise — could easily be painted with a broad brush of culpability.

More pertinent to the underlying political goals of the inquiry is the list of witnesses for the first round of questioning: it features former ministers such as Ronnie Kasrils and Mosiuoa Lekota, former president Thabo Mbeki, and officials from the National Treasury. It is a virtual roll call of President Jacob Zuma’s factional enemies and contemporary irritants.

This inquiry could perhaps be named the “Maharaj Commission” in honour of the president’s extraordinarily able political strategist, Mac Maharaj. When Judge Willie Seriti finally releases his “findings”, perhaps towards the end of the decade, it will be interesting to see whose fingerprints can be found on the covers of the multivolume published report.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

Why the electoral system should not be changed (from 2013)

IT IS now 10 years since the Electoral Task Team, chaired by the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, released its famous report on electoral reform. A Cape Town round-table discussion this week, organised by the Forum for Public Dialogue (FPD) and the University of Cape Town’s Van Zyl Slabbert visiting chair, Prof Roger Southall, met to contemplate the continuing salience of this report and to consider the relationship between electoral systems and political accountability.

The task team’s majority report, supported by Slabbert, championed a “mixed” system in which 300 out of 400 MPs would be elected in 69 multimember constituencies. Because constituency voting favours large parties — small parties cannot win any constituencies — a further 100 “top-up” MPs would be allocated to restore full proportionality between votes cast and MPs elected. The purpose was to create a link between MPs and constituents and so to enhance accountability. The government rejected this and concurred with the minority report’s judgment that a closed-list proportional system, without constituencies, should be retained.

FPD research commissioned for this week’s discussion suggests that the relationship between electoral systems and political outcomes is complex: institutions cannot simply be transplanted from one society to another. An element of constituency-based competition might allow citizens to engage with certain political events and arguments more closely than the present system allows. But elections are not strong instruments for holding politicians to account. Citizens do not know which politician has actually done what. This is especially so when the institutions required for an informed citizenry — effective education systems, free and accurate news media and strong civic associations — are lacking.

Reformers’ energies should arguably be directed towards these institutions and intrastate accountability systems, such as the auditor-general, the public protector and parliamentary oversight committees.

The changes proposed by Van Zyl Slabbert could also bring significant political hazards.

First, constituency competition might greatly weaken parties’ capacity to act coherently. Despite the African National Congress’s electoral strength, it is organisationally very weak. Local party barons are already plugged into provincial and municipal resource systems and greater autonomy would free them still further from party discipline. Those who believe strong and coherent parties are important for democracy therefore have reason to fear reforms that would disempower party bosses.

Second, constituency competition might introduce new political pathologies. The minority report observed that fierce local contests could “compromise racial and ethnic harmony”. The mobilisation of support around ethnicity would be almost inevitable. The present system, by contrast, obliges aspiring MPs to obey the nonracial doctrines of their parties.

Third, constituency-based elections would politicise boundary demarcation. As we have seen in Khutsong, this is a potentially fraught matter. In a postreform system, big parties would gerrymander and bus voters into swing constituencies.

Fourth, the personality politics that constituencies encourage can turn ugly. Business interests will want to buy constituency MPs; candidates will feel obliged to sell themselves. Every MP will be expected to bring resources to their constituents or even carry bulging suitcases full of cash for them ahead of elections.

Finally, local issues are already addressed in local elections (using very much the electoral system that Slabbert recommended for national politics). National elections should allow citizens to vote on manifesto commitments and on the overall quality political leadership, and not on a mishmash of local and populist concerns.

Given today’s political environment, constituency competition threatens to worsen tribalism, patronage and populism — all to secure accountability advantages that are at best unproven. The majority report’s recommendations should probably enjoy at least another decade of well-deserved slumber.

•  Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

Agang SA and umbrellas (from 2013)

THERE is nothing more sinister than people with umbrellas. Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident who defected to the West in 1969, poured scorn from exile on the regime that once persecuted him. On September 7 1978, at a bus stop close to London’s Waterloo Bridge, Markov felt a sting in his leg. He turned to see a man hurrying away with an umbrella. A micro-engineered pellet, containing the poison ricin, had been injected into his thigh from the umbrella’s tip. Within three days, he was dead.

Fictional villains have added to the umbrella’s ghoulish reputation.

Batman’s long-standing adversary, the Penguin, was a wobbling, waddling, hoodlum, who never left his lair without an umbrella. The Penguin’s umbrella was more than a rain-repelling accessory: it could fire bullets, double as a bullet-proof shield, or expel toxic gases. It could even serve as a parachute.

A more sympathetic parasol-wielding vigilante featured as the arch-villain in a long-running Thabo Mbeki-era miniseries, Fiscal Judge Dredd (recently revived as Planning Man).

Portrayed by Bollywood heartthrob Trevor Manuel, this imposing “Master of the Future” was an adversary of, well, more or less everybody. He also nursed inner demons. In a notorious 2007 horror flick called Polokwane!, Fiscal Judge Dredd ran amok, berating photographers and trying to attack a journalist with his neo-liberal golfing umbrella.

Now South African opposition politicians have “umbrella fever” once again as a result of Saturday’s launch by Mamphela Ramphele of a fictional political party called Agang SA.

Democratic Alliance (DA) activists believe that apartheid was wrong; but they also believe that somebody else was responsible for it. (They are not quite sure who.) Meanwhile, African citizens are disinclined to vote for a party that is willfully forgetful about history. DA leaders therefore need shielding from the black historical chickens that may come home to roost on election day. Could Ramphele, they wonder, pull a chicken-repellent umbrella out from under one of her hats?

The need for such an accessory was first identified by United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa, who observed long ago that only an opposition “umbrella body” could counter a dominant African National Congress.

Two clues about the umbrella’s potential size and pattern were revealed in Ramphele’s address to the Cape Town Press Club on Wednesday.

First, her promise to “unveil” her policy platform during Saturday’s launch said a lot about the so-called party’s character.

Unlike real political parties — which argue about policy, fight over candidate lists, and elect leaders — Agang (according to its website) wants to put “citizens … at the centre of public life” by “having conversations across the country, to understand people’s needs and expectations for the future”.

Ramphele’s soon to be “unveiled” leadership team is probably made up of Mbeki acolytes. Associates of Moeletsi Mbeki’s Foundation for Global Dialogue helped set up the party. Pro-Mbeki intellectuals, and businesspeople who made money doing business with the Mbeki-era state, are likely to become funders. Agang will aim to cannibalise the electoral carcass of the Mbeki-aligned Congress of the People.

Second, Ramphele told the Press Club that, in certain petitions to the Independent Electoral Commission, her party would be “working as a team” with the DA. “Working as a team”, of course, could go much further than this.

The Agang life-president claimed earlier this year that the DA and Agang could form a “mutual umbrella”. As a result of her close personal relationship with DA leader Helen Zille, an informal deal might already have been struck.

Perhaps Ramphele has consented to serve as the black front for a DA-controlled opposition alliance? Such an agreement might look like a clever way to dig the DA out of its racial hole; but it is unlikely, in the end, to win over many African voters.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.