Our democracy is in limbo. Nothing less than an urgent and salubrious change of guards and a new political ethos which rallies the multitude will fix it
Last week, the 11-judge Constitutional Court, South Africa’s highest court, unanimously found President Jacob Zuma guilty of violating the Constitution for ignoring the orders issued since 2014 by the Public Protector to repay some of the $16 million of state funds used to renovate his private residence at Nkandla. The Court also criticized Parliament and the Speaker for not honouring their ‘constitutional obligations to hold the President accountable’. The Court ruling is in fact a scathing indictment of a questionable system of governance which unreservedly favours a party leader and President at the expense of the country.
The Court ordered Zuma to repay the money used for various improvements to his Nkandla home such as a swimming pool, a visitors’ centre, a cattle enclosure and an amphitheatre. The Treasury has been given 60 days to determine the amount owed, and Zuma has been given 45 days to pay once the amount has been established.
Such an unequivocal condemnation further taints Jacob Zuma’s Presidency, which has been plagued by repeated accusations of wrongdoing and misconduct since he took office in 2009. Prior to that he was removed by the previous President Thabo Mbeki from his post as Deputy President on allegations of corruption and fraud relating to a dodgy $5 billion weapons acquisition deal by the South African government in 1999. He has also had to fend off diverse charges including influence peddling and other misdeeds in various court cases.
After his condemnation by the Constitutional Court, Jacob Zuma apologized to the nation in a televised address claiming that he had received incorrect legal advice and declared that he will repay some of the money as ordered. His apparatchiks within the ANC, who have diligently shielded him from sanction throughout the scandal exposed by the Public Protector since 2014, have indicated that by apologizing and proposing to repay the costs claimed, Jacob Zuma has made sufficient amends. Such a cavalier approach towards the damning Constitutional court finding has blemished the ANC. It has caused a rift within the iconic party of Nelson Mandela which fought against and brought an end to the decried system of apartheid in 1994 and which is in power since then. The “elder statesmen” and senior figures of the ANC are fully aware that Zuma’s position so alien to the seminal values of the ANC, has become untenable.
For many in South Africa the latest misdeed of the President is the last straw. There has been a rising clamour for his resignation from South Africans, the South African Council of Churches, the opposition parties and the African National Congress (ANC) revered anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada who had been sentenced to life imprisonment with Nelson Mandela and others at the 1963-64 Rivonia trial.
In a public letter addressed to President Zuma, 86-year old Ahmed Kathrada voicing the feelings of many South Africans appealed to the President ‘to submit to the will of the people and resign’ owing to the ‘widespread condemnation and criticism’ and the deepening ‘public loss of confidence in the government of the country and the ANC’.
An impeachment motion against Zuma tabled by the opposition was debated and defeated on Tuesday by the ruling ANC who averred that President Zuma was not guilty of serious misconduct. Everybody knew that this motion was unlikely to obtain the two-thirds majority required as the ANC holds a large majority of 249 out of 400 seats in the National Assembly.
It however leaves the ANC with a dilemma. Holding on to a discredited leader with three years remaining on his term of office can only seriously impair the standing and aura of the ANC in the country and render it vulnerable. It once again highlights the fact that no leader and certainly not a tainted one can be more important than the Party which led the country to independence.
Democracy means constantly fighting for it
Democracy can only work if all its stakeholders which include the Members of Parliament (MPs) elected by the people, the institutions of the State which act as bulwarks against government licence or high-handedness and to safeguard the public interest, the trade unions, the organisations of civil society, the forces vives, the media, the public commentators and intellectuals as well as the people diligently play their role as watchdogs to ensure that the ethos and values which underpin democracy are rigorously adhered to.
Democracy is seriously undermined and impaired when elected MPs condone stark wrongdoings of their leaders at the helm of Government in the name of party discipline and allegiance instead of condemning them and standing up to uphold the public interest and democratic principles and values. What is presently happening in South Africa is not unique to that country especially in a continent beleaguered by repeated violations of human rights as well as political and civil liberties.
Democracy remains vibrant when elected Members and citizens or trade unions and other vocal interested parties are prepared to fight for it and stand up to oppose decried policies. In France protests by elected Members across the political divide on important principles underpinning the French national ethos left President Hollande last week with no option but to abandon the contested constitutional amendment to strip French-born nationals convicted of terrorism of their citizenship.
Similarly, the French have strongly protested through petitions and huge rallies of workers and students across France against the controversial proposal to reform the Labour laws presented by the Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri. These protests mirror the angst and growing ras le bol of the people at having to continue to bear hardships against a backdrop of years of austerity measures which have failed to conjure the enduring crisis afflicting Europe.
The Jacob Zuma case also raises some fundamental and germane issues. First and foremost, in true democracies, there is no place for undemocratic political parties or autocratic leaders of parties who furthermore undermine public interest and the rights of the people and their choices which must all remain paramount at all times. The corollary is that every MP who puts Party interests or those of his leader above that of the country and the public interest breaches the contract of the trust with the people. In short, he disqualifies himself from standing for elections and seeking the vote and trust of the people again.
We are faced with a similar situation in Mauritius. The entrenched culture of ‘blind’ allegiance of pliant MPs to omnipotent party leaders is not only contrary to elementary principles of democracy but more importantly is a major impediment and danger to the smooth functioning of our democracy. More disquietingly, it has inter alia been responsible for the suspension of the National Assembly for most of 2014 and the approval of disputed proposals to bring about decried amendments to the Constitution which the people emphatically rejected at the December 2014 polls. It has also left the country saddled with disavowed party leaders thereby seriously hobbling our democracy.
Necessary change of guards
At a regional party meeting in Lallmatie last week, the disowned leader of the Labour Party pilloried the government for its favouritism, breach of trust, unfulfilled promises and scandals. His litany uncannily echoed his own misdeeds and dismal track record during his decade in power. Both the nTan and FMI reports on the BAI alleged scam single out the lax supervision of the regulators and auditors under his watch as Prime Minister and the foolhardy political patronage of his government as the root causes of the collapse of the BAI Group and the anguish endured owing to the risk to their savings, by tens of thousands of hapless investors from all walks of life.
To crown it all, the government after barely sixteen months in office is already in the throes of its worst crisis. On a determined holier-than-thou crusade against all past misdeeds, it finds itself currently facing a series of serious allegations of wrongdoings by members of its own Cabinet and ugly internecine infightings in its own camp. Is our democracy now stumbling on its feet of clay after decades of systemic watering down of standards and values, of questionable choices and endless decisions systematically short changing merit?
The upshot of it all is that the people and the country are finally left with no credible political options available for the future.
The December 2014 poll verdict was a warning shot by the people, irate after decades of wrongdoing, repeated breach of trust and an absence of honest political accountability. Undemocratic political parties led by the same leaders dumped at the polls cannot fool the people all the time. The past and its rejected leaders have no place in the present and the future. Our democracy is in limbo. Nothing less than an urgent and salubrious change of guards and a new political ethos which rallies the multitude will fix it. The onus is collectively on all of us to bring about this sea change. Let’s do it.
* Published in print edition on 8 April 2016