The NPA decision and social fabric

2009-04-14 00:00

The fracas that has broken out in the aftermath of the NPA decision to drop charges against Jacob Zuma is indicative of the difficulties inherent in our transition from authoritarianism to democracy. There has been heated debate on whether it was right for advocate Mokotedi Mpshe to drop the case against Zuma because the NPA had been seriously compromised. Opposition parties, some opinion makers and most of the media have attacked the decision as illogical and even political.

The same interest groups opposed attacks by some ANC leaders on the judiciary last year; yet today they are pulling killer punches on the NPA and judges who make inconvenient rulings.

In a democracy, power is contested by various interest groups in a manner that engenders public confidence in democratic institutions. Such institutions derive their value from their credibility in the eyes of the public and their predictable conduct in relation to established ground rules of society (the Constitution). Democracy is strengthened when interest groups realise that their power struggles should not be pursued to the extent that they corrode the very fabric of society.

But when these groups fail to realise that their power struggles may erode public confidence in democratic institutions, the struggles become a danger to democracy.

Lately, there have been many occasions when difficult and potentially controversial decisions have been taken by either government or important public institutions like the judiciary. These presented interest groups with opportunities to wage their power struggles.

Such struggles do not scar the soul of the nation when as a nation we have drawn a red line around our national interests, namely: national cohesion and prosperity, and institutionalisation of democracy. The idea is that interest groups should not tear our country apart and soil its image in the world simply to win a few votes or to contest political power.

We seemed to understand this in the early stages of our democracy when we let apartheid architects, warlords and criminals get off scot-free for the sake of national peace and cohesion.

We avoided debating race and trod carefully on issues of minority rights.

I thought this was the basis on which the interest groups mentioned above criticised Gwede Mantashe’s attack on some judges. They also lambasted ruling party activists who called Judge Hillary Squires an unreformed Rhodesian agent. When the likes of Julius Malema and Zwelinzima Vavi attacked Thabo Mbeki, many expressed concern that this would erode confidence in the office of the president. In this, the DA, ID, UDM, IFP and some leaders of the ANC were unanimous. So when Mosiuoa Lekota served divorce papers on the ANC, leading to the formation of Cope, I thought they opposed the weakening of our institutions of democracy by the spilling over of internal ANC leadership contests.

But I now have doubts if these interest groups are as concerned about democracy and its institutions as they would like us to believe.

The big test that they have all failed in the past week alone is this: we must be willing to defend institutions of democracy even if they take inconvenient decisions. The problem is that these parties find the NPA decision on Zuma so inconvenient that they are willing to erode public confidence in the NPA and calling into question its independence.

We should have been warned long ago. When Judge Chris Nicholson delivered an inconvenient judgment, a verdict in favour of Zuma, the same groups did not only oppose the verdict, but they attacked Nicholson for venturing into the political. Yet they themselves had plunged deep into issues legal. They thus meant this judge could not be trusted, thus casting doubts on the judiciary by implication.

When Justice Louis Harms reversed this judgment, the same group felt so vindicated that it publicly ridiculed Nicholson. I could not help but think that we lost an opportunity to use the two diverse rulings on the same matter to discuss how the law operates and how this fact itself could help deepen our democracy and trust in institutions. But these interest groups refrained from debating Harms’s verdict because it was convenient, i.e. it was against their enemy, Zuma.

On April 22, citizens must help the nation deepen its democracy by affirming the power of their vote, and thus show that they still trust our institutions of democracy. But powerful interest groups have an added responsibility to engender public confidence in our public institutions.

We must refuse to fight our power struggles at the expense of the foundations of our democracy and the public confidence in its institutions. We can attack government, the NPA and such institutions, but not simply because they arrived at decisions that we find inconvenient. If we do so, we have elected our sectional interests above those of the nation as whole. We would have thus crossed the line. As governments in waiting, opposition parties should not want to inherit institutions of governance devoid of public trust and credibility. It much easier to destroy these than it would be to rebuild their public standing. We cannot weaken our democracy to win a few voters or to score short-term political points.

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