What separation of powers?

The French writer Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu argued that government power must be divided into legislative, executive and judicial authority. The reason for this doctrine of separation of powers (trias politica), accordingly, is to prevent power from being centralized in the hands of one person which generally leads to abuse. This was obviously an attack on the monarchy at the height of democratic struggles against feudalism. Montesquieu’s doctrine of trias politica is widely embraced by most governments throughout the world.

Separation of powers, checks and balances over government authority must be viewed as a mechanism to ensure government delivers on its social mandate on behalf of the people and prevent abuse of government power in contradiction with this mandate.

Let’s use South Africa as an example to check if and how trias politica is applied since the process of filling vacancies in the Constitutional Court is underway. This presents an opportune moment to explore this doctrine.

In a representative parliamentary democratic form of government, such as there is in South Africa, once a dominant party or an alliance wins elections, the legislative (Parliament) authority of government elects a President, who becomes the head of the executive (Cabinet) which s/he puts together and draws from amongst members of Parliament. Moreover, the legislative authority makes laws for implementation by the executive and enforcement by the judiciary.

At appropriate times the President has powers to make various strategic appointments to head key state organs such as the National Prosecuting Authority, National Police Commissioner, Reserve Bank and the Constitutional Court. In the same breath Cabinet Ministers appoints governance bodies of all state entities and enterprises. These appointments are more of political deployments, to fulfill a political mandate, than deployment of appropriate skills to ensure optimal performance and service delivery. Even appointments of Chief Executive Officers of state entities and enterprises are an exercise in political deployment.

The lines of separation of powers are blurred. In fact it is more of separations in form than in substance since the authority devolve within the same political class. The reason bad performance and non-delivery of services across various government authorities is tolerated is due to this intra political patronage and mutually dependent and reinforcing relationship between various branches of government authorities aptly described in the words “you scratch my back I scratch yours”.

The idea of separation of powers is a façade that promotes dictatorship of the petty bourgeoisie political class interests all over the world. This illusive doctrine does not ensure independent, responsible, accountable and fair excise and fulfillment of government affairs.

Our generation must rethink the nature of state, government and institutions to serve our people rather than go with convention. We must introduce a government whose form and content truly places accountability for the exercise and performance of government authority and function respectively, in the hands of the people, to ensure that the people’s interests reigns supreme. We cannot change society unless we reengineer and change its structures to serve the socialist objectives of the poor working class masses.

Hulisani Mmbara
Chief Editor