South Africa’s Parliament will rise from its ashes

  • Whatever be the cause of the fire, the old National Assembly building is now to be spoken of in the past tense – an unbelievable thing
A building, howsoever grand or imposing, is, however, about the people who have used it and the proceedings that have marked its inner life(Reuters) PREMIUM
A building, howsoever grand or imposing, is, however, about the people who have used it and the proceedings that have marked its inner life(Reuters)
Updated on Jan 06, 2022 07:57 PM IST
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Accident or arson? A “simple” crime, a loner’s act gone bizarrely wrong? Or a sinister act of cold, calculated sabotage that brought down the roof of the stately National Assembly building in the House of South Africa’s Parliament?

An individual has been arrested, charged and will be tried in court.

But the timing of the blaze — during under-invigilated hours — stokes fears of play beyond a loner’s greed, gamble or game.

Whatever be the cause of the fire, the old National Assembly building is now to be spoken of in the past tense – an unbelievable thing. The new National Assembly building, built by Herbert Baker of Lutyens’ New Delhi fame, has also suffered.

A building, howsoever grand or imposing, is, however, about the people who have used it and the proceedings that have marked its inner life. South Africa’s Parliament House in Cape Town has been much more than a stately house built in 1885, augmented later to house the National Assembly. It has been a symbol of hope against despair, atonement against arrogance, vision against stagnation.

It is in this building’s original core that the Smuts-Gandhi agreement of 1914 found articulation in the Indian Relief Bill, which was passed inside its halls, becoming the Indian Relief Act of June 26, 1914. The Act met, among other aspirations, Indian-South Africans’ demand for repeal of the hated poll tax on Indians and the recognition of non-Christian marriages that had been shockingly dis-recognised. The Act was hailed by Gandhi as the Magna Carta for Indian-South Africans, bringing the satyagraha led by Gandhi to a close.

And it was in this building that the new post-apartheid South Africa saw a South African woman of Indian Parsi descent — Frene Ginwala — take office as the first Speaker of the National Assembly, holding it for a full 10 years, 1994-2004, with rare distinction. The same first National Assembly also saw a large number of Indian-origin South Africans become Members of Parliament (MPs) and ministers, leading to some African National Congress (ANC) cadres asking Nelson Mandela why he had so many Indians — out of proportion to their numbers in the population of South Africa — as MPs and ministers. His reply was: “The Indians in the new Parliament do not represent their proportion to the population in South Africa, but their contribution to the struggle.” The new South Africa’s Parliament unveiled the glowing rainbow nation envisioned by chief Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Desmond Tutu, Chris Hani, Steve Biko, Joe Slovo, and the three doctors — AB Xuma (president, ANC), GM Naicker (president, Natal Indian Congress), and Yusuf Dadoo (president, Transvaal Indian Congress) who signed the famous Doctors Pact in March 1947 for the nation’s ethnic solidarity in struggle. And for which, following his father’s footsteps, Manilal Gandhi, editing Indian Opinion from Phoenix, Natal, devoted his life.

South Africa’s representative Parliament promulgated, in this building, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa as an Act of Parliament in 1996 that says in its Section 9: “Everyone is equal before the law” and expressly prohibits as grounds of discrimination “race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”

It also protects in Section 12 what is so precious today: “The right to freedom and security of the person, including protection against arbitrary detention and detention without trial, the right to be protected against violence, freedom from torture, freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” And in its Section 14: “The right to privacy, including protection against search and seizure, and the privacy of correspondence.” And it introduced the path-breaking truth and reconciliation legislation and brought in the consolidated Children’s Act, discarding the old racial and discriminatory clauses for a more compassionate approach towards children.

Women form 51% of the population of South Africa. In the first National Assembly, women MPs comprised 27.7% of the total. Among them was Ela Gandhi, daughter of Manilal Gandhi, making vital contributions to the justice and social development committees. Today, women comprise 46% of the National Assembly. No fire can incinerate that reality — a hurray to that.

This mature, representative Parliament was about to discuss the report of the Zondo Commission’s inquiry into allegations of State capture, corruption and fraud in the public sector including organs of State, when the fire engulfed the National Assembly. (State capture refers to systemic political corruption in which private interests significantly influence a state’s decision-making processes to their own advantage). The discussion would have gone into the hows and whys of the civil commotion of last year — uncomfortably so for many.

India must offer South Africa’s Parliament solidarity in this moment of outer and inner hurt. Remembering that we are two parliamentary democracies in one freedom, India must offer South Africa assistance and expertise in the reconstruction of the structure where so much of moment has transpired. More, it must offer its expertise in reconstructing its library and archives, using digital technology as and when necessary, an area where India has proven experience. Even if democracy’s homes are nowhere foolproof, its spirit is fireproof and has to be fear-proof.

South Africa’s Parliament House must and will, like a Phoenix, rise from its ashes so as to ensure that it continues to reflect the civilisational ethos that the first House, post-apartheid symbolised: The country’s struggle for liberation from apartheid turning into a quest for justice, dignity, reconciliation.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor 

The views expressed are personal

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    Gopalkrishna Gandhi read English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. A civil servant and diplomat, he was Governor of West Bengal, 2004-2009. He is currently Distinguished Professor of History and Politics at Ashoka University

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Tuesday, May 17, 2022