This is a country that can break one’s heart

This past week we again heard the name of Michael Komape. Michael was five years old when he fell into a pit latrine at his school in Polokwane.

He died, choking in faeces. The tragic incident happened in 2014 but there has been no resolution and no government department has taken responsibility for the incident. The family, aided by SECTION27, approached the Limpopo High Court for justice to be done.

Where is the political leadership? Where is the politicians’ shame? Where is the president in the face of such unspeakable tragedy? Well, we know where he is – distracted by protecting himself and his corrupt cronies and making renewed attempts to capture the state more fully.

We are all paying the price for this toxic and uncertain politics and none more so than the poor. There are many more Michael Komapes.

The ANC is hurtling towards its elective conference in December and we watch as the party is torn apart by dysfunction and corruption.

President Jacob Zuma for his part continues as if every allegation of State Capture, every finding by the public protector and every accusation from those within the ANC who still have some ethical fibre is fabrication and lies. Some lies he claims are spread by “white monopoly capital”, others by the media or those who want “regime change”.

We watch in disbelief as witness after witness comes before Parliament describing how the Guptas have captured Eskom and the Minister of Public Enterprises, Lynne Brown.

Brown has hit back saying she takes instructions from no one. Mounting evidence in the public domain seems to indicate that Brown has an economical relationship with the truth. Just like her boss and many of her Cabinet colleagues.

South Africa waits for the day when the reckoning will finally be done and those who have sold our country down the river for a dime are held to account. For now, though that will not happen. Shaun Abrahams, Zuma’s lackey at the NPA, will see to that.

Zuma is becoming increasingly desperate and will do anything – even bring down the state – to avoid prison.

He is a dangerous man.

This week we were again reminded exactly how dangerous. We have reached another urgent inflection point in our democracy.

It is akin to the crisis point we reached when Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, were fired in the dead of night. It came when Deputy Director-General and Head of the National Treasury Budget Office, Michael Sachs, resigned.

That a fine, thoughtful and respected public servant like Sachs has resigned should send a chill down all our spines. This is because of what the resignation represents.

After pressure from rights groups, Zuma finally released the Heher Commission Report into the funding of higher education. The delay has been untenable specifically given that vice-chancellors have been left to carry the full burden of instability on campuses this past year.

But it now transpires that Zuma’s reasons for the sudden release of the report may well be inspired by rather more cynical manipulation. In the mould of a typical populist, Zuma seems to have asked the National Treasury to find ways to fund free higher education.

What is astounding is that this was before the release of the Heher Report and after the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement was released late last month. He has also skilfully usurped some of Treasury’s powers through the establishment of a Presidential Fiscal Committee, thus creating his own parallel budget processes.

Reports are that Zuma was following the recommendation of one Morris Masutha who suggested offering free higher education while cutting other public services. Masutha is not part of the Treasury and is linked to the Zuma family. He has no discernible qualifications to intervene on policy, surely?

The mistaken narrative peddled by some is that Sachs has resigned because he does not believe in the principle of free higher education. Anyone who is familiar with Sachs’ work would know that the matter is more complex than that.

Rather, word has it that Sachs has resigned because proper budgeting protocol was, and is, being broken. To put this in context one has to understand the painstaking work that Treasury Director-General Maria Ramos and successive directors-general and finance ministers have put into establishing proper budgetary procedures.

South Africa has, over the past 23 years, consistently been lauded by the global Open Budget Index for transparency in its budgeting process.

It was Trevor Manuel who introduced the Medium-Term Expenditure Framework and also the concept of consulting with ministers before government commits to expenditure. Every budget is about priorities, after all.

The Presidential Fiscal Committee will doubtless be used by the unaccountable Zuma to shroud decision-making processes that affect expenditure. And who will hold this small cabal accountable if Treasury is excluded? And how then do we have faith in the numbers the minister of finance presents to Parliament?

Undermining Treasury in such a way was a reckless act and there has now been further obfuscation. In the way of a typical populist, Zuma will use free higher education in the same way Roman politicians used the panem et circenses (bread and games) in the Colosseum to appease a restive populace. Surely one cannot oppose the noble goal of free higher education, Zuma might say?

Sachs’ resignation is about a principled man taking a stand against the president’s reckless interference in budget processes. Our country needs to have an evidence-based policy discussion on the funding of higher education. That needs to happen with the Heher Report in hand.

But there is every indication that Zuma intends to simply ignore that process. And it is such arbitrariness that makes him dangerous. How do we deliberate carefully in a democracy when the head of state acts so unaccountably, and deliberately undermines a commission report that he himself requested?

In the prologue to their new book, Enemy of the People, authors Adriaan Basson and Pieter du Toit ask poignantly, “How did a man who swore on 9 May 2009 that he would commit himself ‘to the service of our nation with dedication, commitment, discipline, integrity, hard work and passion’ come to embody everything that is wrong with South Africa? They go on to say; ‘…Zuma and his circle of rogue protectors broke not only the country’s spirit and moral fibre but also our hearts’.”

How true that is. For possibly the most poignant parts of the book are those dealing with the axing of two fine men – former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his predecessor Nhlanhla Nene.

One can only read these pages and cry for our beloved country. The book provides devastating detail on how SARS was captured and then how Treasury’s defences were breached.

Former Director-General, Lungisa Fuzile, is quoted heavily. He describes how he tried bravely to hold the fort after Nene was fired and how Des van Rooyen’s three lackeys, and let us remember their names – Mohamed Bobat, Ian Whitley (son-in-law of Jessie Duarte, the ANC deputy secretary-general) and Malcolm Mabaso – arrived asking for access to Treasury files on SAA and took over the office of Malcolm Geswint, Nene’s former chief of staff.

Fuzile describes being given instructions by Des van Rooyen to “arrange access cards” for the three men despite the fact that no protocol had been followed. Fuzile is in his words “flabbergasted”. Of course, the rest is history, but Fuzile’s account of Gordhan’s return is equally filled with emotion and then contrasted by the cowardly act when Zuma eventually fires Gordhan.

South Africa has felt the long hand of tyranny before and tried to build something new on the ash-heap of apartheid. Now, we have Zuma and a new form of tyranny. He is truly an “enemy of the people” and of the Constitution.

This is a precarious political moment and if history repeats itself but in slightly different ways, Alan Paton’s words ring true again – despite the changed context, it still describes our bewildering country so powerfully:

“This is no time to talk of hedges and fields or the beauties of any country. Sadness and fear and hate, how they well up in the heart and mind, whenever one opens pages of these messengers of doom.

Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart.”

Ours is a resilient country quite used to the swings and roundabouts of its politics – always at “five minutes to midnight”, as author Jakkie Cilliers says. But right now, it’s hard not to fear our dangerous president.

This article was published in Daily Maverick. 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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