South Africa’s constitutional democracy has, over the past week been shown up for the farce that it is. And the call now must be for a system that will extend democracy and grant real power to the people “on the ground”, to the the rank and file whose potential collective power has been stolen, used and abused by political elites.
There was very clear evidence recently of this farce when President Jacob Zuma declined to step down after having been found by the Constitutional Court to be in breach of the constitution. He was protected only by the fact that the ANC majority in parliament stood by him and parliament was the only institution that could carry out the sanction required.
This was a clear illustration that the principles of a Constitution and the rules of law are merely wish lists on a pieces of paper unless the institutions that are charged with applying them do so. But such actions were justified on the basis that parliament represents the will of all the people of South Africa, so whatever parliament decides is is not only for the people but by the people and, therefore, apparently supercedes the Constitution.
It is a spurious argument. But, just as spurious is the claim that the governing party, the ANC, is the true representative of all South Africans. Although it is the largest political party in the land, its total membership accounts for less than 1% of the country’s population. A steadily declining proportion of the voting population has also given its mandate to the ANC, with the result that, at the last election, the ANC gained 65% of the votes cast, but this amounted to just over 38% of the number of potential voters.
Yet the ANC and other political parties persist in promoting the illusion that they are democratic; that they do — and will — represent the interests of the public at large. But unless that public has control over the elected representatives, the promised democracy is a farce.
Every five years, the adult citizens of South Africa are invited to spend a few minutes in a polling booth to hand over the power they collectively have to the leader of one or other political party. The leader of a majority party in turn decides, all too often with a group of cronies, who will occupy not only parliamentary backbenches but also ministerial and deputy ministerial posts.
There also exists the most incredible opportunity for patronage: positions in state owned enterprises, in the civil service and diplomatic corps, let alone the disbursement of tenders. With all power vested in the party and, ultimately, the leader, this provides great temptation to proclaimed “representatives of the people”.
And because the state is a multi-trillion rand business, there are plenty of factions in business who can — and do — take advantage of this situation to win tenders, and to manipulate the system to their advantage. Recent months have made this very clear.
It was a situation highlighted at yesterday’s (subs: Friday) press conference at the Treasury staged by sacked finance minister Pravin Gordhan and his (also sacked) deputy, Mcibisi Jonas. The high-handed manner of their dismissal — they heard via the media — was an example of dictatorial arrogance, of diktat by an unaccoutable elite.
However, Gordhan pointed out that South Africa has a history of mass mobilisation and he encouraged everyone concerned with the way the country was being run, to “organise”. It was such mass mobilisation that had brought about the defeat of apartheid. The pro-Zuma TV channel, financed by the president’s supporters, the Gupta family, promptly labelled this a call for insurrection, so opening the door to a possible future state of emergency.
Gordhan and Jonas were also fired ostensibly on the basis of an “intelligence report” that maintained they were plotting to undermine South Africa’s economy and planning to stage a coup. This was in the sordid tradition of similar reports over the years, apparently trotted out by often semi-literate elements in the security establishment and designed to discredit certain individuals.
In the case of Gordhan and Jonas, it appears to have backfired badly. Nobody, with the exception of Zuma’s media champions, appears to have taken the report seriously. As a result, the putative head of the soon-to-be-launched new trade union federation, Zwelinzima Vavi, and an array of human rights and community organisations are preparing a series of protests about “state capture”.
If such a movement gains great traction, it will only succeed if it has clarity of purpose. If it merely acts on the negative basis of removing the present top political leadership without changing the structure, it will amount, as the cliché goes, to changing the deckchairs on the doomed Titanic.