Will of the peo­ple is last hope against state cap­ture

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

SOUTH Africans are in­trin­si­cally op­ti­mistic. It’s an ap­peal­ing trait – how else to sur­vive in a na­tion that his­tor­i­cally has so of­ten teetered at the edge of the abyss – but one that means we’re also des­tined in­ter­mit­tently to hit a dash of cold re­al­ity.

It was de­cep­tively easy to shrug off the lack­lus­tre, tread­ing-wa­ter na­ture of Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s first term, start­ing in 2009. Noth­ing much ap­peared to hap­pen, with Zuma seem­ingly spend­ing his time jock­ey­ing to avoid a ju­di­cial ac­count­ing on the 783 charges of fraud and cor­rup­tion that hung over his head.

With the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, it was a mis­take to judge Zuma’s prospects by the cack-handed na­ture of his gov­er­nance. It was what was tak­ing place be­hind the scenes that re­ally mat­tered.

The reve­la­tions of the past weeks re­gard­ing the scale of self­en­rich­ment of an ANC elite make it clear, in ret­ro­spect, that a chill­ingly ef­fi­cient process of state cap­ture has oc­curred over the past eight years. It’s now no longer the oc­ca­sional cor­rupt skele­ton in the cup­board that is ex­posed by the me­dia to scru­tiny, but an en­tire nether­world of skulls-and-bones, dragged out danc­ing in a conga line.

It was widely as­sumed not to be pos­si­ble for this to hap­pen. South Africa would not slide into the kind of cor­rupt au­toc­racy that flour­ishes in so many other de­vel­op­ing states, es­pe­cially on the con­ti­nent.

Mil­i­tat­ing against pop­ulist ex­pe­di­ency was the ANC it­self, with its long tra­di­tion of re­ly­ing on con­sen­sus rather than sim­ple ma­jori­ties to de­ter­mine its ac­tions and poli­cies. Its part­ners, the SA Com­mu­nist Party, the self­pro­claimed brains of the al­liance, and the Congress of SA Trade Unions, its ur­ban brawn, were sup­posed to be fur­ther bul­warks.

On a wider, struc­tural level, there were the care­fully cal­i­brated coun­ter­vail­ing forces crafted into the con­sti­tu­tion. A con­sti­tu­tion, we were re­peat­edly re­minded, that was viewed by schol­ars as per­haps the finest in the world.

Sadly, the first line of fail-safe mech­a­nisms, those of the ANC, flopped dis­mally.

To cap­ture the coun­try, Zuma first had to cap­ture the party, to make him­self im­mune to a palace coup. If he could do that, any at­tempts at re­sis­tance from the so-called “stal­warts and vet­er­ans” would be re­duced to fu­tile squeaks and trills.

And so, it came to pass. Zuma might have lacked the flu­ency to get his tongue around the fig­ure of a “two-eleventy-mil­lion-sev­en­ty­nine” party mem­ber­ship. But he did have enough arith­metic to know that most of those mem­bers were in his pocket, mak­ing him, un­like his pre­de­ces­sor, safe from a grass­roots re­volt.

Through care­ful ap­point­ments and cal­cu­lated culling, the lead­er­ship ech­e­lon was sys­tem­at­i­cally weeded of his foes.

When, ear­lier this year, the ANC’s national ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee (NEC) failed to de­mand Zuma’s res­ig­na­tion de­spite the heavy­hit­ters that lined up against him, it sig­nalled that the pres­i­dent had all the num­bers that mat­tered on his side.

Last week­end’s sec­ond NEC at­tempt at a coup was there­fore doomed from the out­set. As I’ve noted be­fore in this col­umn, one gets only a sin­gle chance at regi­cide.

The fi­nal line of de­fence, then, is con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy it­self, both in its en­shrined pro­tec­tions and in the right of the peo­ple to elect their rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Over the past few years, op­po­si­tion po­lit­i­cal par­ties and ac­tivist or­gan­i­sa­tions have brought dozens of court ap­pli­ca­tions against the govern­ment. It’s para­dox­i­cally an­other in­di­ca­tion of national op­ti­mism, a sign of public con­fi­dence that the ju­di­ciary, as yet, has not been cap­tured.

Un­for­tu­nately, while such ac­tions may bring re­lief at spe­cific pres­sure points – set­ting aside a dodgy ap­point­ment, rem­e­dy­ing a spe­cific abuse – they will not re­ar­range the po­lit­i­cal landscape. The sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers be­tween the leg­isla­tive, ex­ec­u­tive and ju­di­cial arms of govern­ment crimps the space for Con­sti­tu­tional Court in­ter­ven­tion, es­pe­cially in the face of an in­creas­ingly vo­cif­er­ously ar­tic­u­lated im­pa­tience on the part of Zuma sup­port­ers with what they de­scribe as “court in­ter­fer­ence” to thwart the will of the peo­ple.

Ul­ti­mately it is this “will of the peo­ple”, rather than le­gal­is­tic ma­noeu­vres, that will de­ter­mine the shape of South African so­ci­ety.

It’s first man­i­fes­ta­tion, how­ever, will be as “the will of the ANC”, when the party chooses its next pres­i­dent in De­cem­ber. This is the per­son who will al­most cer­tainly be­come the next pres­i­dent of South Africa, if the ANC wins the 2019 general elec­tion.

In a party that is now so com­pre­hen­sively con­trolled by Zuma, the hope that South Africa’s next pres­i­dent will be Cyril Ramaphosa, rather than Zuma-byproxy, seems in­creas­ingly for­lorn. Af­ter all, the aim of cap­ture is to hold the high ground, so that no one can in­ter­rupt the flow of il­le­gal largesse.

That leaves only one last hope of re­vers­ing state cap­ture. It is that the elec­torate will pun­ish the ANC in 2019 by deny­ing them an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity.

And, if that hap­pens, it seems a wan hope that the ANC will move into coali­tion with the Demo­cratic Al­liance – which has shown it can and does gov­ern with min­i­mal cor­rup­tion – rather than the EFF, whose se­cret but big­gest beef with the ANC is that it stands ex­cluded from the gravy trough.

Fol­low WSM on Twit­ter @ TheJaun­dicedEye

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