Mpumelelo Mkhabela

No need to 'make South Africa great again'

2018-10-18 10:28
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: AFP)

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: AFP)

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The condition to put South Africa on a path of progress and growth could never have been more propitious for President Cyril Ramaphosa. It's up to him to fail.

On governance, it is the transformation of two institutions that will provide the clearest indication of Ramaphosa's political agility: the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the South African Revenue Service (SARS).

Both were nearly destroyed. Public confidence in their ability to fulfil their constitutional obligations waned. Ramaphosa has the power to not only fix this, but also to strengthen the edifice on which these institutions are anchored to mitigate against abuse even long after he has left office. How he will use his executive authority will be subject to public judgement.

His decision to invite inputs from the legal profession before deciding on the right candidate to lead the NPA is a commendable first step. This will clothe whoever emerges to lead the NPA with legitimacy that goes beyond political acceptability. This is the aspect that has been lacking for some time at the NPA.

We had become accustomed to NPA heads serving at the pleasure of the president almost as if they are Cabinet members. Parliament must legislate this consultative process. It must not be subject to presidential prerogative.

Ramaphosa also has an opportunity to turn SARS around. Despite the frustration with its suspended commissioner Tom Moyane, he must fire him in a way that would make it difficult for a competent SARS commissioner to be removed in future. It would be better if Moyane resigned on his own. But not every one has the conscience of Nhlanhla Nene and the ability to place the country above personal interests when caught in the wrong.

Despite the self-generated negative mood in our country, we are still wonderful. Our society is fragile and, in many respects, broken. But it is not completely starved of oxygen to regenerate.

We remain a vibrant, noisy and sometimes ungovernable people. It's a strength. We have not experienced suffocation like Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. If we did, we would resist it and I have no doubt we would win.

Jacob Zuma was daydreaming of starving us of the oxygen to be restless when he wished he could be a dictator for just a few months. Our restlessness manifests itself in service delivery protests, when communities rebel against the diversion of public money from service provision to corrupt elites and when they seek attention from sleeping law enforcement agencies who allow drug lords to prevail.  

The restlessness is there on our university campuses. You hear it when citizens scream on media platforms. In courts, civil society groups fight for rights and redress. In some cases, as is the case with the dagga ruling of the Constitutional Court, the envelope of legal recourse is pushed to the limits.

This is made possible because the judicial system works. Judges do not fulfil the political objectives of the appointer, the president, whatever these objectives might have been in the president's mind.

It is credit to the strength of the system that it can rule against a sitting president and it can haul a former president to court to face corruption charges. This notwithstanding, South Africans understand that we have not yet reached the desired equality before the law. Hence the continued public demand that abuses of trust in both the private and public sector should be punished. Whether it's the scoundrels of VBS, Steinhoff or state capture, South Africans want to see the culprits in orange overalls.

When citizens strongly feel the governing party is not doing its job, they exercise their right to demonstrate it through the ballot box, switching their votes for opposition parties and forcing the formation of coalition governments in some areas. In some cases, the governing party has to rehearse to be in the opposition benches.

It won't be long before constant change of power between political parties or coalitions becomes normal. No one has threatened to change the system. Even if they did, South Africans would rebel.

Our economy is performing way below its potential. But it has the potential to recover and lead in many respects. To say our economy's underperformance is chronic would be to suggest that individually and collectively as a nation we lack the intellectual wherewithal to overcome our difficulties.

We are still home to excellent, innovative and globally competitive companies such as Sasol, Sappi, Naspers, Tiger Brands and Shoprite, to name just a few. Even in their wobbly state, our state-owned companies such as Transnet, Eskom and Denel have good assets – and potential.

With an injection of patriotic human beings who appreciate what it means to lead state-owned companies and changing of the governance structures to ensure accountability and innovation, we can turn the corner. There was a time when people were convinced that the Post Office and our commercial banks won't be able to distribute social grants. We will soon be wondering why we had to rely on Cash Paymaster Services and the arrogant Serge Balamant in the first place.

Our constitutional democratic architecture is intact. Yes, we still have Busisiwe Mkhwebane as a public protector, but our system has shown its ability to overcome the weaknesses of individuals who undermine the purpose for which they were designed to serve.

Parliament, despite its obvious weaknesses and its complicity in numerous cases of executive irrational exuberance, is functioning. It's not broken – again despite the fact that it is home to scoundrels including those who participated in the failed bid to sell our country and its assets to the Guptas.

Our foreign policy has lacked direction since Thabo Mbeki vacated the Presidency. After many years of humiliation on international platforms, including that embarrassing television episode of "hole in the head" diplomacy in front of an international audience, International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has committed to reclaim the moral credibility we once enjoyed.

Ramaphosa has defined his foreign policy in terms of South Africa's economic interests, appointing investment envoys. It's a reflection of his domestic priorities to reset the economy.

The debate on expropriation of land without compensation has unsettled investors. But it also provides an opportunity for stakeholders to craft a successful land reform programme that grows rather than collapses the agricultural sector.

We don't have to make our country "great again". We are actually a great country, but we must realise the potential and turn it into reality. After all, we can't eat potential.

- Mkhabela is a political analyst with the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa.

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