A funny democracy, indeed
For millions of people, the payment of social grants on 1 April means that the ANC government will have delivered on its promises.
presidentJacob Zuma is right. This is a “funny democracy”. But not for the reasons he proposed in Parliament recently. Asked by DA leader Mmusi Maimane whether he will take action against social development minister Bathabile Dlamini for her handling of the social grants crisis, the president maintained she did nothing wrong. “It’s a funny democracy, a funny legal system that a person before committing a crime must then be judged and punished,” Zuma said. Many South Africans were outraged, and rightly so, at a president who has perfected the art of dodging accountability himself.
Zuma doesn’t particularly care about outrage. We should know this by now. His antidote for any such thing is a chuckle. Dlamini herself evidently care very little about public outrage by those she sees as having a “preconceived agenda”. At the height of the social grants crisis, Dlamini made it clear in her responses that she is talking to the millions of grant beneficiaries. So adamant was she, that at times she and her spokesperson defiantly refused to speak English (or sense for that matter, depending on who was listening), because the language of the millions of grants beneficiaries is not English. She is right. At every turn in this roller-coaster ride of hyper-anxiety over the plight of millions of South Africans’ welfare, she saw them, spoke to them, tried to assure them.
Make no mistake, Dlamini shamelessly dodged accountability and was prepared to risk being labelled a totally incomprehensible drunkard. On every platform she assured beneficiaries that grants will be paid on 1 April. Zuma did the same, as did deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and minister in the presidency Jeff Radebe at a recent post cabinet media briefing. All their pronouncements were seemingly short of the line “by any means necessary”.
While the media, politicians and civil society groups were still at a loss over how they would be paid, millions of grant beneficiaries wanted to hear that grants will be paid. When a few hundred rand stand between you and having food on your table, “by any means necessary’’ far outweighs nice-to-haves like accountability and consequence. Dlamini understands that. Zuma understands that and yes, even the ANC, whose main constituency is the rural poor who are dependent on social security, understands that.
So when the Constitutional Court made its much-celebrated ruling and cracked the whip on administrative incompetence, it was Dlamini’s fitness to hold office that received most of the focus. Calls for her to be sacked came from opposition parties, civil society groups and even from within the tripartite alliance. The court was scathing in its judgment of Dlamini, who in court papers instead fingered officials of the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) as the main culprits for the mess.
“It is the minister who is required in terms of the Constitution to account to Parliament. That is the minister and the minister alone,” the judgment read.
In those words there are no ambiguities, no confusion over where the buck stops. Indeed a victory for accountability and consequence. Yet the ultimate victory for millions of grant beneficiaries is that they’ll receive their grants come 1 April. As far as the majority of grant beneficiaries are concerned, the minister delivered. They will eat on 1 April.
Zuma and Dlamini understand that. The presidency released a statement a day after the ruling apologising for the “undue anxiety from the uncertainty over grant distribution”. It is not incompetence they are apologising for, nor is it an admission of guilt. They can simply apologise “unreservedly” because to the people who really matter in this fiasco, they delivered. Everything else is secondary.
Many questions remain in the quest to bring those responsible to book. Why was this crisis engineered and to whose benefit?
It was a risky gamble with the ANC’s core constituency; essentially a gamble with the fate of the party in the 2019 elections. Yet, judging from the actions of the ANC caucus in Parliament during a debate on the crisis, they – as with the Nkandla scandal – protected their own. Again opposition parties and civil society put up a valiant fight and won. Again, this fight was won in the highest court of the country – for now.
But whose victory is it really? Millions of South Africans’ livelihoods depend on 17m grants being paid out monthly. Having about a third of your population in the grip of poverty is nothing to celebrate but rather an indictment of all of us.
What value does a democracy hold when those who control the stomachs of millions of South Africans can effectively control the outcome of the ballot box?
This is a crucial time for the ANC, which has been bleeding votes during the local government elections. So in maintaining its grip on its core constituency – “by any means necessary” – it would be understandable for the ruling party to want to “remind” that very constituency exactly who is putting food on their tables. We indeed live in “a funny democracy”.
President Jacob Zuma