South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) had plenty of time when in the wilderness to learn some of the tricks of Statecraft. For more than forty years they were bystanders as the now-defunct National Party of Malan, Verwoerd and Vorster manipulated and gerrymandered its way round the Constitution. Thus not all the lessons which the ANC learnt were good ones.

One trick which the NP pulled was of the goalpost moving variety, back in the 1950s when legislation affecting the separate electoral roll for Coloured people (which then meant those of mixed race most of whom were to be found in the Western Cape), who were still able to vote in elections, failed to get a sufficient majority in The Senate. In a move of striking cynicism the NP simply enlarged the Senate and filled all the new seats with placemen. The Senate duly passed the legislation with a sufficient majority. Once this had been achieved the NP then reduced the numbers in the Senate once more.

The ANC enjoys a considerable electoral majority and has the ability to amend the Constitution without recourse to other parties if it so chooses. One of its opponents is the Democratic Alliance which last time out polled some 11.4% of the vote. Today it has a feisty new leader in Helen Zille who was also elected Mayor of Cape Town in 2006.

The Western Cape has been the one area that the ANC have failed to dominate since the ending of Apartheid and it has always particularly resented those parties which get in the way of that dominance. When Ms. Zille won last year she ousted an ANC incumbent.

Emulating the NP when thwarted democratically, the ANC simply sought to move the goalposts. Their response was to try and remove all executive power from the post of Mayor and reduce it to a post of ceremonial splendour and nothing else. Doubtless had they succeeded, an incoming ANC mayor of the future would have had those powers restored. Fortunately their plan was stymied. Nonetheless Ms. Zille had had a foretaste of how the ANC intended to treat her. Of her more in a moment.

Recently there have been serious disturbances in the Western Cape and in a development redolent of problems of the past, rioting broke out in the areas around Cape Town Airport. In the days of Apartheid this would happen all the time and the airport would have to be closed. The N2 road from the City would be subjected to stoning and other forms of attack and it used to be one area where one was inclined always to carry a sidearm: necklacings, much beloved and enjoyed by Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie, in which a victim would have an old tyre placed over his torso which was then set alight with an accelerant such as petrol, were not uncommon and definitely to be avoided.

The Government response was one that would have been familiar to the ancien regime: riot police were sent in and set about the demonstrators with rubber bullets and, demonstrators claimed, live rounds as well.(I shall long remember the SA Police Colonel who, after a some protest or other had been quelled with a volley of small arms fire, was asked by a gentleman of the press why they did not use rubber bullets: “When they use rubber rocks, I’ll use rubber bullets” ended that particular query). To the shock of the ANC who believed that all these poor downtrodden people worshipped the ground upon which they walked, the protestors had taken the opportunity to single out for a beating and in some cases to kill ANC Councillors. Clearly the ANC has ceased to be flavour of the month which may begin to explain why the authorities should respond to other demonstrations with considerable intolerance.

Crime remains an enormous problem and much anger at it is focused on drug dealers. One of the singular failures (there are others) of the ANC has been crime. From an unwillingness to crack down on those who would ordinarily vote for the ANC to a simple inability properly to run and manage the Police, the ANC has at times seemed quite helpless when faced with a tide of really serious crime. Not for them Blairite sloganeering followed by continuing high rates of serious crime, just rising rates of all crime, much of it horrifically violent.

Back then we come to Ms. Zille. In early September a demonstration against the drug barons wreaking havoc in the Townships took place and one of its protagonists, a religious leader, was arrested. Most Governments and police forces would, provided the protest was peaceful, take the view that any such manifestation of antipathy towards drug crime, any crime, was a most welcome development.

Not so the South African Police who, when Ms. Zille pitched up to protest at the arrest of the religious leader, had her arrested under the Orwellian Regulation of Gatherings Act 1995 (passed not very long after the ANC took power) on the grounds that her presence along with others was an ‘illegal gathering’ (where have we heard that sort of thing before? Communist Russia? Cuba? Tiananmen Square? No, London, of course, where for reading out the names of war dead in Whitehall can get you nabbed these days by Blair’s Thought Police) and then charged her. She was released on bail.

Said the Mayor on the radio later:

“The last time I was taken in like this was under apartheid. It was a completely peaceful march. We had permission for it. It was within the law and it is a completely wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution.”

Today she has been told that the proceedings against her are being discontinued, though the Western Cape prosecutor, one Rodney de Kock, took the opportunity to threaten others inclined to demonstrate with all sorts of nastiness under the Act.

Ms. Zille, meanwhile, weighed into the authorities:

“These were always trumped up charges and I do not believe that they were the result of ineptitude by the SAPS, but rather of something more sinister. To arrest people when they have not contravened any law or regulation, demonstrates once again the growing tendency by the authorities to undermine the Constitution and treat people’s rights as if they were arbitrary favours granted by the police and the ruling party.”

She went on to express, as well she might, concern at the arrest of people who were in the process of revealing wrongdoing by certain individuals.

“If left unchecked, such a trend poses a serious threat to fundamental democratic freedoms.”

Quite.

Perhaps we are seeing the new Helen Suzman. Perhaps too we shall see the return of public manifestations of the “Black Sash”, individual demonstrators taking their protest to the streets alone to get round restrictions on ‘illegal gatherings’. Clearly Ms. Zille is someone to watch as she takes on the oppressive tendencies of the ANC who are showing increasing signs of deep intolerance to anything which smacks of protest or opposition. In the coming week we shall hear some more of this disturbing trend.

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