A dubious legacy

2015-05-23 11:08

WITH a year into the second term of Jacob Zuma’s presidency, and the battle to replace him as ANC leader increasingly intensifying, albeit outside the public eye, what is his democratic legacy likely to be?

In his bid to escape prosecution for alleged wrongdoing, Zuma will leave a dubious presidential legacy of having undermined the credibility and effectiveness, and in some cases simply destroyed, the country’s pillar democratic institutions. The Constitution is South Africa’s pinnacle democratic institution, setting the rules, values and behavioural framework for the country. Zuma is constantly attacking the Constitution, undermining the credibility of South Africa’s founding document among supporters and voters of the ANC.

The president also appears to be ignoring the strictures and rules set out in the Constitution. The Constitution gives Parliament oversight over the executive. Zuma has often shied away from facing questions in Parliament, has secured the election of pliant, uncritical allies as MPs, whips and chairs of committees, and has regularly used his executive powers to ride roughshod over parliamentary decisions or to make decisions that Parliament is supposed to make.

The president regularly bypasses parliamentary oversight through setting up committees to rule in his favour. A case in point was the special ad hoc committee on the R246 million spent on Zuma’s Nkandla home, which the president’s ANC parliamentary allies used to whitewash the report by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, which stated that Zuma had benefited improperly from the so-called security upgrades to his property and that he should repay some of the money.

But the president has emasculated many democratic oversight institutions, especially the Chapter 9 institutions, whether by appointing lackeys, starving the institutions of funding or ignoring reports from more vigilante ones.

Madonsela is a case in point. Zuma wrote to Madonsela that he is not obliged to accept the remedial actions proposed in her Nkandla findings, which recommend he pay part of the costs for the refurbishments at Nkandla, saying they are mere “recommendations” — a position which is a violation of the constitutionally enshrined powers of the public protector.

Parliament proposes members for boards of many SOEs, public agencies and oversight organisations, and the president makes the final decision on who gets appointed. Often individuals are picked by the president, not on their competency, but on their pliability. This undermines the integrity of the democratic appointment process.

The president has regularly subverted the entire criminal justice system, undermining the credibility, independence and trust in the system, in his bid to prevent allegations of impropriety against him going to court. This undermines the principle of equality before the law, indicating that the politically powerful are above the law.

The president has also regularly attacked the judiciary. Court pronouncements have often simply been defied. The Western Cape High Court in 2014 ordered the SABC to suspend its chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Motsoeneng, who appears to have the protection of the president, was instead appointed permanently.

Zuma has indicated there is no need to use the justice system in issues that can be solved by chiefs, traditional laws and institutions. Yet all traditional institutions, culture and laws are subject to the Constitution, not separate from it.

In his campaign to quash corruption charges against him before he became president, Zuma closed down the Directorate for Special Operations (Scorpions), the country’s most effective crime-busting unit. Only Parliament is supposedly empowered to do so.

The South African Revenue Service (SARS), one of the effective organisations in the post-apartheid era, has been accused by opponents of Zuma of being used to trip up critics of the president. SARS has denied this. The danger is that a perception could take hold that SARS is soft on key ANC figures but tough on those less well-connected.

There is a considerable waste of public funds, through mismanagement, corruption and bling, by officials, with little sanction, and taxpayers may increasingly look for ways not to pay taxes, given the services they get for their taxes are poor, and that their money is seen to be wasted by officials. Zuma has claimed that corruption is a “Western paradigm”. This not only undermines the Constitution, it encourages the acceptance that corruption is “normal”.

The institution of the presidency is a crucial democratic institution to unite South Africans. Incumbents need to act, in private and in public, with the appropriate dignity and honesty. Zuma has undermined the integrity of the office. Now, all that is left is the legal power of the Office of the President. In South Africa, with its diverse politics and cultures, persuasive power through moral authority is more crucial to persuade citizens to act in the interests of the country. The legal power of the office can always be defied.

• William Gumede is chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times

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