Good Governance Twisted [opinion]

IN APRIL 1887 the British moralist, writer and politician, Lord Acton (1834-1902), in a letter to archbishop Mandell Creighton made the famous and often quoted statement: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Significantly, this observation was made in a society widely considered as the cradle or midwife of democracy. It reminds us that democracy is not a form of political governance which serves as a panacea to the abuse of power. Rather, democracy comes in a variety of shades and nuances and demarcates a contested territory.

This insight, however, does not render striving for more democracy a futile exercise. Democracy remains the best of a variety of imperfect political systems.

Emerging with all the bruises and deformations from a society under settler-colonial rule bordering on totalitarianism, Namibians thrived for a democratic society. A society, in which everyone had a legitimate say, participation and ownership, based on the respect of fundamental human rights and – may I add – the recognition of ‘otherness’ under the notion of national reconciliation.

The Republic of Namibia started off when members of the Constituent Assembly adopted a Constitution in January 1990. Core aspects were based on principles designed in negotiations with the Western Contact Group in the early 1980s. Swapo submitted these as the accepted format and thereby promoted and endorsed the normative framework. This was the last step towards independence as officially proclaimed on 21 March 1990.

The introductory and concluding passages of the Preamble to The Constitution of the Republic of Namibia provide explicit reference to a democratic society as the most effective system to maintain and protect the fundamental rights of the people:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is indispensable for freedom, justice and peace

“Whereas the said rights include the right of the individual to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of race, colour, ethnic origin, sex, religion, creed or social or economic status

“Whereas the said rights are most effectively maintained and protected in a democratic society, where the government is responsible to freely elected representatives of the people, operating under a sovereign constitution and a free and independent judiciary

“Whereas these rights have for so long been denied to the people of Namibia by colonialism, racism and apartheid […]

independent republic.”

It is noteworthy that the emphasis includes “a sovereign constitution and a free and independent judiciary”, under which the freely elected members of the people operate.

This implies the supremacy of the Constitution, though this does of course not elevate it to a holy shrine, which should remain untouchable. Constitutional principles have to adapt to changing values and norms, especially in the arena of human rights and social and political entitlements (as well as obligations). In that respect constitutional principles require a reality check and might shift emphasis (as happened among others with regard to the abolition of discrimination of same sex preferences in many countries).

But constitutional principles should not be twisted and deformed simply because an elected majority in parliament is willing to change the rule of the game for their own benefit. By doing so, they turn the rule of law into the law of the rulers. This is abuse of political authority and tends to make a constitutional state meaningless.

The ongoing contestation over Namibia’s Constitution is based on the self-righteous claim that Swapo is entitled to set the rules of the game. But it makes a mockery of a truly democratic society, in which lawmakers base their decisions on wide consultations and observe fair play in the general public interest – not their own. What we witness instead is that good governance (whatever that means) is turned into the governance by convenience of the ruling party.

To all knowledge available it was not by popular demand or based on popular consultations and in due respect of relevant institutions to be involved in the decision-making process that most of the 40 plus constitutional amendments were tabled in parliament.

Despite all claims to the opposite, it is common knowledge that purely inner-party deliberations and the desire to seize more executive powers for the individual office-bearers at the top of government were the decisive motivation. Swapo rules, and as Lord Acton already diagnosed: while power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. – Good governance se voet, man.

* Dr Henning Melber was director of Nepru (1992-2000), research director at the Nordic Africa Institute (2000-2006) and director of the Dag Hammarskjoumlld Foundation (2006-2012), both in UppsalaSweden, and is extraordinary professor at universities in Pretoria and Bloemfontein. He joined Swapo in 1974. His latest book ‘Understanding Namibia’ will be published in September.

Source : The Namibian