Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Politics of Omission: The Good, The Bad and the Unsaid

“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Silence of the Wolves

In politics, what isn’t said out loud is often more important than what is. This has certainly been the case with the African National Congress’s recall of the president of the Republic, Jacob Zuma. It may seem incredible, but the entire recall process occurred without the ANC actually stating what President Zuma had done to provoke such a drastic action. The new ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule – a Zuma loyalist – went so far as to say that President Zuma did nothing wrong at all! Not to be outdone, President Zuma himself also took to the microphone, stating – in a television interview designed to reach his base – that he had not been given any reasons for his recall.

The reality of course is that there are many clear and indisputable reasons for recalling President Zuma. The Constitutional Court found that he had violated his oath of office when he refused to abide by the binding recommendations of the Public Protector over upgrades to his homestead. He has 783 charges pending related to his involvement in the arms deal of the early 2000s. He – and his son – have been implicated in “state capture” activities, along with a network of private sector, intelligence, government and state actors. Under his leadership, parliament and government have been hamstrung by protest. The state is failing badly in many areas. ‘Service delivery’ protests skyrocketed under his leadership, and a culture of disruptive, often violent protests have seeded in communities who feel that they only way they can draw attention to matters that plague them is by taking direct action. Political assassinations, intimidation and corruption have spread at the local level.

For all intents and purposes, Jacob Zuma should have exited power a long time ago. It was the ANC that kept him in power, refusing to act upon his many transgressions, scuppering all attempts to depose him. Many who were calling for his removal now were deeply in bed with him and his cronies and enthusiastically enjoyed the spoils of his wayward leadership. And so it was, that even when they decided it was time for him to go, they could not bring themselves to speak out loud the many and varied transgressions and failures of his leadership and his government. It is ironic, but in keeping with the tradition of duplicity, rhetoric and double-speak that became entrenched under his leadership. That is, to say one thing and do another.

Yet, in order to heal an illness, is it not true that it must be diagnosed? That it must be named? The refusal to publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for the disastrous situation the ANC created, simply means that it cannot enter into an honest period of self-reflection, healing and renewal. It is still stuck deep in the mud left behind by its own floodwaters; the waters that broke when the dam wall that was supposed to hold power in check and to account was summarily detonated under Jacob Zuma’s leadership. It will take government and the state a long time to recover. Yet it will not recover until the truth is spoken out loud and acknowledged, and those who allowed this mess to occur take responsibility for their ill-advised actions. Blind loyalty and self-interest, when combined, has proved to be a disastrous model for the exercise of power in South Africa.

The grave danger that the state of the ANC places the country in should not be underestimated. The spectacular unravelling of the ANC’s tripartite alliance, and its descent into factionalism and discord, should concern every South African. By standing by Jacob Zuma through all his misadventures, the ANC dragged itself, the government, the state and the country into a lengthy period of decline.

Yet, whenever the ANC was previously called to act upon Jacob Zuma’s misdeeds they resisted. They argued that a ‘second recall would fatally wound the ANC’. In reality, this second recall has proved quite the opposite; it has resulted in widespread jubilation and celebration (even if premature at this stage), and has proved rejuvenating and hope inspiring for the majority of South Africans. The ANC threw South Africans under the bus when they needed to put the country first and self-correct from within. They simply cannot be trusted just because one leadership position has changed.

The ANC’s refusal to acknowledge the reasons why Jacob Zuma’s leadership was a failure is telling. It tells us that it is incapable of conducting an honest dialogue with itself, let alone with the rest of the country. Simply translated, this means it is incapable of self-correcting in an open, transparent manner. Instead, behind the scenes Machiavellian power will be exercised to purge undesirables, and these undesirables will be determined by those who hold the most power. It tells us that we can expect more of the same type of leadership from the ANC, that is, a leadership that makes decisions and takes actions behind closed doors and pulls strings behind the scenes to retain power; a top-down elitist model of leadership where rhetoric reigns supreme but decisions are made according to the prescripts of a cold and calculating ‘realpolitik’.

What We Don’t Want?

The question South Africans need to ask is simply whether this is the kind of democracy we want? To celebrate Cyril Ramaphosa as the ‘hero’ who has come to rescue us from the villain, is to perpetuate the very same ‘big man’ leadership model that created the room for Jacob Zuma to abuse his power. Surely this isn’t the road we should be going down again? Surely we should be going back to the drawing board and examining how power, elite networks, institutions and government functions operate? Surely if we speak of radical change then it must be deep rooted, and not merely superficial? Yet the politics of omission is the very definition of keeping things superficial, vague and non-committal. We already know what this produces. And it is up to us to prevent it from happening again.

To be sure, a purge of the ANC’s ranks is necessary, but it is unlikely. The need to ensure unity within the ANC will likely take precedence, and a fine balancing act will ensue. The technocrats will take charge again and there will be no end of great strategies and plans for a great future. However, without critical insight into the systemic and embedded fault lines within the government and state, ensuring robust and resilient progress in the long term will prove difficult. Deep reflection is required.

South Africans have had their fill of inspiring visions. What we need now are reliable, accountable implementation agencies that do not squander state funds in meandering bureaucratic processes and half-baked plans that ultimately entrench maladministration and corruption. The South African state is unique among countries of its ilk because it collects its taxes successfully, and consequently has a significant fiscal basis from which to carry out its mandate. The steady erosion of the state’s capacity to deliver on its mandate, and government’s ability to function coherently, has left the country wounded. As it limps on into this next phase, let us not fall prey to the same euphoric guff that created the space for Jacob Zuma’s leadership to lead the country astray in 2007. That is, let us not see only our hopes, dreams and desires into this situation. Let us see it for what it is; a difficult new beginning that must be closely guarded and monitored. We should not entrust power without safeguards. To do so would be to ‘do the same thing again and hope for a different result’, the very definition of insanity.

Where To From Here?

Political analysts have been swept up by the moment, making all kinds of proclamations about a new era of transparency, accountability and visionary leadership that returns South Africa to the international prominence it once enjoyed under presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Of course it is only natural that the public would want to enjoy the cathartic release of seeing president Zuma go, and to begin to hope and dream again, but it is quite another thing when political analysts begin feeding sentiment rather than providing sober analysis.

This is without doubt a critical moment. However, pretending that all it takes is this moment to turn the country around is deeply disturbing. Much more is required to turn the ship around, to get it back onto the right course. A great deal of damage has been done, internally and externally. It is not simply a matter of getting the economics right; it is a matter of doing the hard work of transforming institutions so that they cannot easily be hijacked or ‘captured’ again. It is about addressing the key systemic deficiencies of the South African state, government and economy. It is about rebuilding society’s confidence in a broken body politic. It is also about awakening the South African polis.

Instead of losing ourselves in premature celebration we need to exhale for a moment – and indeed enjoy it – but then move quickly to ensure that the pressure that existed before Jacob Zuma departed from office is still being exerted. This necessitates challenging, at every opportunity, the ANC leadership’s inability to admit to and acknowledge its deep internal troubles and problems, and how these have manifested in patently disastrous outcomes for the country. Skirting around this central reality is – in my view – not political diplomacy, but duplicity. Good leadership acknowledges, confronts and deals with its central challenges; it does not speak with two tongues but provides clear explanation of what is wrong and what needs to be done about it.

By speaking out loud what the ANC refuses to, we can force them to acknowledge the great distance between the reality they profess, and what we know to be true. And as this distance grows, like a wedge between the ANC and the people of South Africa, they will eventually be forced to humble themselves before us and confess what they know to be true in their hearts; that they are no longer an organisation that serves the people but an elite of self-serving opportunists (with some exceptions) who take power for granted. While we celebrate the possibility of change, we should not forget how we ended up here. We must consolidate our will and action to guarantee that the future we desire and deserve comes to fruition. And the first step in that direction is to air out loud the good, the bad and the unsaid.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

All The President’s Men!

Some interesting developments are unfolding since the election of Deputy President of the country, Cyril Ramaphosa, to the presidency of the ANC. Two key contradictions have emerged in the wake of Ramaphosa's ascendancy to power; (1) contradictions within the ANC and (2) contradictions in the public discourse. The former is more obvious and has been readily picked up by the media and those who are politically engaged, while the latter is much less obvious and appears to have gone unnoticed for the most part.

The Obvious Contradiction

First, let’s account for the obvious contradiction; the one that everyone has been focused on. It is not the main subject of this piece, but it provides a useful background to the discussion that follows, especially for readers who may not be entirely familiar with recent events in South African politics.

The sitting president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, is approximately a year away from the end of his second term, after which he will have to depart from office. However, there is a precedent that the ANC set when Jacob Zuma was elected as ANC president while the sitting president Thabo Mbeki still held office. When Jacob Zuma ascended to the presidency of the ANC the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC argued that it was untenable to maintain “two centres of power”. Thabo Mbeki had to go, and they eventually recalled him in what was widely regarded – across the Continent and the world – as a deep humiliation. Indeed, his departure speech, which was televised to the nation, although dignified, betrayed a deep hurt at the way in which he had been treated. He was proud, educated and highly literate leader who was booted out of office despite having served the ANC for 50 odd years of his life at that time. Yet the ANC NEC insisted that it would work against the ANC and the country’s interests to maintain “two centres of power”.

All that appears to have been forgotten now that Cyril Ramaphosa has been elected president of the ANC while the embattled, lame duck president Jacob Zuma still holds high office. Indeed, it has been a lesson in political spin to watch ANC leaders find creative ways of explaining to the public why the same treatment shouldn’t be dealt out to Jacob Zuma. The most bizarre explanation is that they are trying to find a way of ensuring his exit without humiliating him. The irony of this is that President Jacob Zuma has proved largely immune to any form of humiliation; his presidency has been deeply controversial. He is accused of corruption[1], involvement in “state capture”[2] as well as violating his oath of office[3]. The reality is overwhelmingly converse; Jacob Zuma’s presidency has humiliated the ANC and him and his cronies should have unceremoniously been shown the door a long time ago.

The media and political commentators have been quick to identify the “two centres of power” contradiction that the ANC now finds itself in. It has taken a particularly cynical joy in drawing ANC politicians out and challenging them for their duplicity. It’s all a bit of a song and dance, a predictable routine that the media go through with the ANC leadership; baiting them into difficult corners and watching them weasel themselves out of them.

The Less Obvious Contradiction

Yet this blatant duplicity is not the strangest phenomenon emerging in the South African political realm. Indeed, there is a much deeper and more disturbing pattern emerging, one that reveals a particularly undesirable continuity between the presidency of Jacob Zuma and that of his successor Cyril Ramaphosa. In my estimation it is a deep problem, one which warrants attention. I won’t pretend to understand exactly why it exists, so I will simply diagnose it and guard against the dangers of it.

When Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC president recently in December of 2017 many South Africans, loyal ANC members and stalwarts, private sector actors and the intelligentsia celebrated it enthusiastically. Confidence in the ANC, which had been at an all-time low, began to surge again. Cyril Ramaphosa is widely being touted as the person who will save the ANC and turn it around. There are very many reasons why this is debatable, but nonetheless, South Africans – who have been living with political and economic uncertainty, and a president who has roundly embarrassed and humiliated them – desperately needed cause for hope.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s election to the presidency of the ANC has undoubtedly provided that hope. Many in the public and private sector have rallied around him, and he has received endorsements from many commentators, ANC leaders and stalwarts, as well as private sector moguls and big-shots. Yet although this booming hope in Cyril Ramaphosa’s abilities are not without merit, the truth is that he faces an extremely difficult challenge. The ANC NEC and the top six are still divided – almost fifty-fifty – between his slate and that which supported Jacob Zuma’s candidate (i.e. his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma). The forces of internal factionalism within the ANC are still playing out, and he has a very tough challenge on his hands (indeed, some view them as near insurmountable).

The internal friction between camps is playing out in spectacular fashion now that Ramaphosa has been elected president. After years of inaction the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) has sprung into action and appears to finally be acting on corruption matters that it has long ignored. The NPA sunk so low as to allow itself to be used as a political pawn to harass and intimidate Jacob Zuma’s detractors and accusers. The bogus cases against the South African Revenue Services (SARS) “rogue unit” (a special investigation unit that looks into financial crimes at the highest level) and the ex-Minister of Finance and ex head of SARS Pravin Gordhan are cases in point. There were many others as well, too many to go into here.

Now, suddenly, it appears as though the NPA is ready and in position to take action against those who have been widely accused , even by the ex-Public Protector, of being engaged in “state capture” (i.e. influencing and rigging state tenders and deals for the gain of a network of politically connected private sector actors). Headlines have rung out with huge muster and bluster that those engaged in corruption will now face the music and have to answer the charges against them.

And the strangest thing of all is that Cyril Ramaphosa is being enthusiastically credited with the new surge to ensure accountability in the political realm and private sector in South Africa. “Cyril is making things happen!” his supporters gleefully exclaim. It is indeed more than strange, particularly because agencies such as the NPA and the Public Protector’s Office are supposed to act “without fear, favour or prejudice” and service the constitution. As such they are not supposed to be unduly influenced by any political leader or government in their decision-making.

Indeed, in the case of the Public Protector’s Office, it is a Chapter 9 institution. The first and foremost responsibility of Chapter 9 institutions is to the constitution and the public of South Africa. They are subject only to the Constitution and the law, and answer to the National Assembly, not the President. In the case of the NPA its mission is similarly defined, although it is not a Chapter 9 institution, that is;

“Guided by the Constitution, we in the National Prosecuting Authority ensure justice for the victims of crime by prosecuting without fear, favour and prejudice and by working with our partners and the public to solve and prevent crime.”

The fact that Cyril Ramaphosa’s election to the presidency of the ANC is being credited with these recent but long-overdue actions is truly bizarre. The fact is that they should have been doing their jobs all along, as they are sworn to do. Who is in power should not matter at all! Indeed, it is deeply worrying, because all it means is that should we – for whatever reason – end up with a new leader who exerts undue influence on them to delay or ignore certain cases, it is highly likely that they will yet again be placed on the back-burner or even scrapped entirely. In short, we should not be celebrating the idea that it is Cyril Ramaphosa’s influence that has enabled them to take actions that should be taken without fear or favour in any event.

Celebrating Ramaphosa as an agent of change within the ANC, and possibly within government, is one thing. Celebrating him as an agent of change in respect of constitutionally independent functions of the state is quite another! We should not be celebrating these recent developments uncritically as it means that instead of bringing about systemic changes in the way our state functions – especially those functions and powers that are independent of government – we are merely feeding into the same destructive “follow the leader” phenomenon that landed the ANC and the country in this mess in the first place.

The Importance of Systemic Change

In the clear light of day, the entire state cannot be regarded as “all the president’s men”. The ANC perhaps can play ‘follow the leader’ as much as it desires, but certainly not the state in its entirety. Separation of powers has – in reality – proved to be the last resort for those who sought to ensure that justice is served in respect of government and private sector corruption (and especially that where the president and his network of operators are concerned). It is the courts, leading all the way up to the Constitutional Court, that opposition parties and civil society groups have had to go to in order to ensure that justice is served and that constitutionality is upheld. It is the Public Protector’s Office – under its previous leader Thuli Madonsela – who fearlessly spoke truth to power and held the powerful to account as equals before the law.

The valorisation of leaders in South Africa – and on the continent as a whole – is one of the largest obstacles to actualising true democracy. Yet it is a difficult mind-set to shake. Indeed, even the ANC’s mantra that “no single person is above the ANC” went out the window in the case of Jacob Zuma. And now, some of us are celebrating Ramaphosa’s ability to wheel and deal and manipulate matters of state behind the scenes (allegedly, I should add). This is antidemocratic in its essence. When constitutionality is sacrificed for ‘political pragmatism’ and ‘realpolitik’ in this manner, we open the door to the forces that undermine constitutionality and democratic process. In order to hold power to account, we cannot – and should not – elevate our leaders above the law and the constitution.

There are those, some masquerading as “saviours of our democracy”, who would sacrifice principle and constitutionality to ‘hold those who threaten the integrity of state’ to account. This kind of change is ridiculously shallow and difficult to sustain. What we need is deep-rooted systemic and structural change that helps ensure that the processes by which the state is run and governed can effectively mitigate abuse of power. We are a relatively young democracy. As such we have to interrogate the system we have and make changes that can improve it over time. Superficial change that is merely the product of a change of leadership is hardly the route to a resilient democratic state that – along with an active citizenry – can self-organise and self-regulate power on its own terms, independent of this or that leader or leadership.

This should not be difficult to understand. The long struggle against the authoritarian Apartheid state was precisely geared towards empowering the people and the state to hold power to account. All that has become blurred now, and our focus is on larger-than-life leaders and their particular qualities. The era of new populism that has taken hold across the world has elevated “the big man” instead of levelling the scales between those in power and those who elect them. While it is easy to understand the enthusiasm behind the notion that “Cyril is getting things moving now”, it is an enthusiasm that loses sight of the basis of our democracy and the long hard-fought struggle to actualise it.

If we are serious about making lasting political changes that can strengthen our democracy we need to go beyond quick fixes and dig deep into the systems that reproduce the conditions for those who would abuse power to do so willy-nilly and get away with it. We need to interrogate the bureaucracies and the processes and principles by which they function, and make the changes that are necessary to ensure that good governance is ensured – and where failures occur, that they are quickly corrected.

Accountability, transparency, sound principles and rule of law cannot ever be replaced by the election of a benevolent leader, no matter how good or trustworthy that leader is. The real test of a democratic state is how well it is able to cope with a variety of potential leaders, good or bad, and ensure that all types are held to account when it becomes necessary. That, more than anything else, should remain front and centre of our efforts to build a real, lasting democracy. But we’re all too busy celebrating the first mile of the marathon without pause for thought that there are many more to go.

The danger in allowing our polis to evolve in this piecemeal, superficial fashion is that the effectiveness of the state will vary, and remain dependent on whether good and bad leader and leaderships are in power. Having never bothered to address the fundamental structural and systemic factors that reproduce undesirable leaders and leaderships we are bound to relive them and suffer their main effects. That is, keeping us in the doldrums of progress towards real democracy, as has been the case with much of the rest of the continent.

[1][1] i.e. 783 charges in the arms deal of the early 2000s
[2] i.e. a facilitator of “state capture” by private business interests to whom his son is intimately linked
[3] As per the Constitutional Court judgement on his handling of the Public Protector’s findings on illegal upgrading to his rural homestead, Nkandla.