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.

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