It was in July 2017 when almost out of the blue, a youthful member of parliament in one of the most stage-managed and micro controlled legislatures in the world dared to challenge the authorities and time honoured practice on the appointment of a head of government. While there may have been members of parliament considered brave and radical before, they were always mindful of possible consequences and therefore never or barely strayed beyond the confines of a backbencher’s script.

When Matsanjeni North MP Phila Buthelezi threw down the gauntlet and challenged then Prime Minister, the late Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini, to a debate in parliament, he surprised everyone and stunned even the most fervent progressives in the country. Buthelezi contended that the appointed Premier was responsible for stifling progress and development in the country. The Member of Parliament went on to suggest that Dlamini’s arrogance stemmed from the fact that he was not democratically elected and therefore not accountable to anyone but the one who appointed him. Murmurs of the honourable member’s adventurous grandstanding reverberated through the parliamentary precinct. Knowing the prime minister’s penchant for revenge, many thought Buthelezi had committed political suicide and cardinal sin in the calculus of the royal establishment.

It wasn’t long before the bullish premier responded to Buthelezi, firstly accusing him of questioning the king’s wisdom in his appointment. After a very short while, the outspoken MP cowered and relented. He was no match for ‘The Don'.  Given Barnabas’ experience and no nonsense approach he recorded a walkover. Isolated, bruised and defeated, Buthelezi was forced to apologize to both the Prime Minister and the supreme authorities, including the monarchy. So remorseful of his 'misguided' and 'infantile' rantings was he that as an exhibition of his repentance and Damuscus moment, he underwent kubutseka, a culture and practice of initiation leading to acceptance as a member of one of the traditional regiments. This practice is also used to seal one’s cadreship of the (Tinkhundla) system and ultimate allegiance to the king.

It is also considered to be an added advantage in one’s candidacy for ‘deployment’ to cabinet, senior and influential parastatal and government positions. It came to pass that Buthelezi was elected Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly after being re-elected as his constituency’s representative in parliament. The Deputy Speaker position is very coveted for a repentant dissident. If there was ever any doubt about whether his cadreship and apology were acceptable, Buthelezi’s appointment into cabinet clarifies everything.

Worth noting is the fact that during the commission of the ‘cardinal’ transgression, Buthelezi seemed to occupy himself, just like our 'democracy MPs’, with the election of the prime minister, not necessarily advocating for an overhaul of the whole electoral system and political structure of Tinkhundla. Considering that he was a product of the individual Tinkhundla electoral system, it was not a surprising posture, perhaps. This tacit endorsement of some parts of the electoral system was to find expression three years later, even if only sort of.

When the current political impasse started, one of the many rallying cries was the call to have an elected Prime Minister. To some extent, it seemed as though the elections of members of parliament itself was not a subject of scrutiny. This view seemed to hold until political parties and other formations who had consistently and steadfastly called for an overhaul of the electoral system as part of greater political reforms in the country joined in. Some analysts conclude that current fault lines within the progressives are age old.

This is usually contrasted with another view hitherto championed by political parties and other mainstream formations. This view suggests that any gradual reform and or 'change from within' can in effect be only academic or downright cosmetic. This, the argument goes, is because no amount of parliamentary majority enjoins the king to assent anything, meaning the amendment of the constitution can only be realized at the behest and or magnanimity of the king. Some legal commentators opine that the very democratic election of a prime minister as mooted by the ‘reformists’ is some form of departure from the dictates of the constitution—a document which in its letter and spirit subordinates itself to the supremacy of the king without any ambiguity. Put simply, to amend or to circumvent the constitution, it should first please the king. 

In counter-response, some ‘reformists’ point to the ‘radicals’ failure to acknowledge the role of (some) members of parliament in the current necessary logjam that is viewed as a potential breakthrough hence universal embrace of ‘Our MPs’ in the spheres of progressives. They reason that the marching to and delivery of petitions at the Tinkhundla centres is in itself an acknowledgement that some tenets of the system can be tactically manipulated to advance the progressive agenda albeit gradually. Stretching their imagination, they wonder how much of the point would have been driven home had at least half the House of Assembly alone been members in the mould of ‘Our MPs’.

Ultimately, the ideological battle as manifested by the boycott or participate dichotomy threatens to undermine whatever efforts towards the much needed unity, thereby giving the regime a breather and space to regroup and reorganize. While it would be folly to paper over whatever cracks without substantive discussions and acknowledgement of points of departure, it is the manner with which such discussions and debates that will be a barometer of our tolerance and maturity as a people.

The initial synergy and tactical camaraderie between the different advocates on either sides of the debate seemed, at least for a moment, to persuade everyone that there could still be unity of purpose in spite of ideological differences and default positions. One analyst goes on to observe that it would in fact have been suspiciously unscientific and mere posturing to suddenly 'disown' the current parliamentary elections in their entirety. In the same vein, it would be disingenuous for the ‘radicals’ to ignore the impact of ‘Our MPs’ in the belly of the beast. The analyst adds: “To the extent that they are only months away, the preoccupation with whether or not to participate in the next elections is not entirely unjustifiable especially because it is clear that the dream of a dialogue is dissipating. But we must also check if the ructions within the progressives’ camp aren’t a factor in the dissipation of the dream. We should, however, be careful not to construe the elections in whatever form as an end game in themselves, but rather as part of a broader strategy to turn every platform as a sight of struggle. The ultimate goal is a people driven and owned constitution".

What will it take to initiate a debate on the desirability and feasibility of a third way given a coexistence of a multi party and independent candidates? Maybe the first question to be examined would have to be to done so on the legality of such a hybrid, but given the seething animosity, who can bell the cat?

That we are in for a long haul might be an understatement. But we must never stop imagining. That appreciation on its own imposes on all of us the responsibility to counterpose the dynamism of society and times with our (sometimes) indoctrinated outlooks and default positions.

Equally, the standoff between the king and Marwick (Khumalo) after the latter was elected Speaker of Assembly, much to the chagrin of the king ought to be taken into consideration in the pursuit of a ‘hybrid’ response. Ultimately, the king’s victory over Khumalo (and by some extension, the people) succinctly captures his constitutionalised omnipotence and institutionalised dislike of the will of the people.

A senior member of one of the political formations thinks that the lessons acquired over years should come in handy. He adds:  we must also be humble and smart enough to realise where we failed and try new tactics. There are many indications that if we remain steadfast and enslaved by indoctrination in the face of ever changing and contested terrain we risk being frozen in time. Our founding principles, which remain very correct by the way, can coexist with new tactics to increase and maintain the tempo. We can, for instance choose to support those who want to participate in the elections knowing well that will be short term strategy. It surely is better than leaving parliament unattended. We must prove to all and sundry that in its current state, the electoral system is a sham. But we'll have to be very imaginative. Can you imagine Parliament collapsing two times a year because Members of parliament dared to leave en masse"? 

What then is to be made of Phila Buthelezi's humbling experience in spite of his bravery? Could it be that he was a victim of individualism after deciding to go it all alone as opposed to lobbying and mobilising his colleagues in parliament? Many years ago one Swazi observed that one of the limitations of the Swazi struggle is the failure and refusal to work together or as collective. Yet, here we are in a bruising battle over elections which themselves wont result to any seismic shift. If we allow ourselves to enslaved by our default positions, we risk being indicted by histroy in the same it did when it dealt with Phila for being individualistic in spite of noble intentions. But the choices are ours.