from Africa in Transition

Constitutional or Parliamentary Democracy in South Africa

March 3, 2016

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Sub-Saharan Africa

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On February 19, governing African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General Gwede Mantashe addressed a party march for “unity, democracy and non-racialism” in Pretoria. There are press reports of eighty-seven thousand participants. Reportedly, Mantashe’s central message was, “We must defend the revolution and defend every attack on the ANC structures.” He went on to say, “We are a majority, we should be able to take decisions and enforce them.”

Unlike the United Kingdom (UK), South Africa is not a parliamentary democracy. In other words, parliament is not sovereign, as is the UK Parliament. Instead, South Africa is a constitutional democracy with some of the most extensive legal protections for minority rights in the world. That is, the powers of the executive and parliament are limited by a written constitution. The South African judiciary may, and does, reject legislation passed by parliament and signed by the president. When that happens, the affected legislation has no force in law. Against a background of very slow post-apartheid social and economic change, some on the left, such as Mantashe, regularly attack the judiciary as a roadblock to achieving true democracy and  meaningful social change. They—alongside others in the ANC—argue that parliament should be supreme in a democracy. However, at present, and for the foreseeable future, there appears to be little popular appetite for moving South Africa away from constitutionalism toward unfettered parliamentary supremacy.

Mantashe is a former chairperson of the South African Communist Party. He comes out of the labor movement, and was the secretary general of the National Union of Mineworkers. Mantashe excoriated the judiciary’s decision that the Zuma government neglected its legal obligation to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during his 2015 visit to South Africa in response to a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Politics and Government

South Africa

International Law

International Organizations

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