SA stuck between hope and despair

We live in precarious times, wafting as we are between glimmers of hope and then despair.

The most recent political discourse has largely been dominated by the social grants crisis interspersed with Presidential Question Time in which President Zuma expressed surprise that the matter was deemed a crisis at all. Democracy is a ‘funny thing’ he said, though no one was actually laughing.

But why are we surprised at Zuma’s response? After all, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, who has failed to act on the Constitutional Court ruling of 2014 declaring the CPS/Sassa contract invalid, is only able to act with impunity because her boss turns a blind eye to her willful incompetence.

Zuma’s own ethically compromised position and his relationship with the Guptas has given everyone in his Cabinet and the broader ANC a free pass to act without regard for consequences.

Last week we also saw Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan appear before the standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) attempting to explain the Sassa matter. It was a lengthy session of uneven quality. After all, as Gordhan was at pains to point out, the task of National Treasury was to ensure that procurement was in line with the Public Finance Management Act and other procurement rules.

How we got into this self-inflicted situation needs to be laid squarely at Dlamini and Zuma’s door. They have allowed the matter to reach crisis point.

Just as last week drew to a close, the ConCourt handed down its judgment ordering that CPS continue the distribution of social grants, but delivering a scathing attack on the state. The ConCourt had so little confidence in Dlamini or the president himself that a strict monitoring system has been put in place to ensure that grants are distributed on 1 April.

On the weekend we also heard that CPS’s Serge Belamant might have purchased a home in London – with cash- to the tune of R70 million.

But as if we were not sure that we were being governed by the courts in what can now comfortably be called ‘lawfare’, the North Gauteng High Court set aside the appointment of Hawks head Berning Ntlemeza. Predictably, there will be yet another appeal.

If Zuma has done anything with effectiveness, it is using the courts to evade a principled decision or to protect the corrupt. In another display of religious hokey, Ntlemeza was prayed over by Pastor Mboro on Sunday, lambasting those who would seek to stop him from doing his work of “catching criminals”. Zuma, of course, has not been averse to using religion as a convenient diversion – we remember that “the ANC will rule until Jesus comes”.

And to cap the truly bad week in which we watched the country’s most senior judges lambast the government for failing the most vulnerable in society, we hear of a break-in at the Office of the Chief Justice and a home invasion at former Sassa CEO Zane Dangor’s home. It’s come to this. In a bizarre statement the State Security Agency said it was not responsible for the break-in at the Office of the Chief Justice. That the SSA would even be suspected of such ‘dirty tricks’ (not unlike those used by the apartheid state) tells us a great deal about the state we are in and the levels to which we may well have sunk.

This is a dangerous moment in the history of our democracy. It is one that pits those who would destroy the state for their own narrow gain directly against those seek to build a country where those in power are accountable and responsive to the citizenry.

Undergirding the values of the Constitution is the next ‘struggle’ we are engaged in.

It will take a particular vision and commitment to rebuild that which has been broken during the Zuma years especially. Zuma, the proverbial wounded animal will seek to use the resources of state to clamp down on dissent, abuse the legal process and protect himself and his associates at all costs.

Of course, he does so with increasingly waning power as the ANC conference looms in December. That might make him both desperate and unpredictable. In the interim, however, the ANC – itself divided and in disarray – will itself be at sixes and sevens in trying to hold Zuma to account. The results of that, whether in Parliament or within the ‘Top 6’, will no doubt result in mixed messages as ANC members hedge their bets ahead of December.

But that internal, opportunistic ANC power-broking is almost secondary to the fight which broader civil society will need to mount – because the rot within the ANC goes far beyond Zuma the individual. Blade Nzimande, speaking at an SACP gathering this week, himself said that the party was tired of being sidelined within the alliance. But what will the SACP, who was responsible for spiriting Zuma to the presidency, actually do? Will it have the wherewithal to in fact leave the alliance, and if it does, is that not too little too late? What a price we are paying for Nzimande’s demagogic defence of Zuma in the run-up to Polokwane.

All signs are that civil society is fighting back with purpose and using every means possible to take on the elements of the ‘rogue state’. That provides some comfort in these times.

Our Constitution and the institutions that undergird it are holding up bravely even under immense political pressure. Our judges have shown that they are able to withstand being forced to do the unthinkable and that is enter the fray to do what amounts to governing.

Now is not the time for complacency, either within the ANC or outside of it. Those with conscience need to speak up and use the very institutions of democracy that are under threat if we are to fulfil the promise of the Constitution.

*This article was published in Eyewitness News. To view the article on their website click here.

Judith February is a consultant on governance matters and affiliated to the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice.  Prior to that she was Executive Director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance Unit and also Head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme.  Judith has worked extensively on issues of good governance, transparency and accountability within the South African context.  She is a regular commentator in the media on politics in SA and in 2009 served on an ad hoc panel to evaluate the effectiveness of South Africa’s Parliament. She is a regular columnist for Media24 and also an occasional columnist for the Daily Maverick and other publications.  She is the co-editor of “Testing democracy: which way is South Africa going?” March 2010, Idasa. She was awarded a summer fellowship in 2009 at the Freeman Spogli Institute for Democracy Development and the rule of law at Stanford University, California and in 2012 was awarded a Spring Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC.

To see Judith February's extensive list of publications on our website please click here.

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