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.

Finweek English Edition - - OPINION - Edi­to­rial@fin­week.co.za Alices­tine Oc­to­ber is a par­lia­men­tary re­porter for Netwerk24.

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

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