Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Zuma an unmanageable national disaster

2017-02-10 11:54

ANALYSIS: #SONA2017 took on a different, worrying tone - Melanie Verwoerd

2017-02-10 10:44

From MPs being forcibly removed from the chamber, to fists and bricks flying; SONA 2017 gives South Africa serious reason to pause. So says analyst and former ANC MP Melanie Verwoerd. Watch.WATCH

South Africa’s leadership crisis is deepening fast. At the heart of the chaos during the State of the Nation Address is the diminished moral authority of the president of the republic.

President Jacob Zuma’s violation of the Constitution and the failure of Parliament to take any action against him has come an unmanageable national disaster. 

Public representatives, particularly the president, are expected to lead by example in upholding and defending the Constitution. The president must be a stickler for constitutionalism. 

The importance of upholding the Constitution cannot be overemphasised. It is only when public representatives observe fidelity to the law that their legitimacy is enhanced. 

Popularity on its own is necessary but insufficient. South Africa chose a democratic system that places the Constitution above anything else. The electoral victor governs within the confines of the rulebook – the Constitution. Exercise of public power is restricted. Zuma and the ANC are battling to grasp the implications of this key democratic requirement. 

So, they have resorted to placing one aspect of democracy, the majority rule, above strict compliance with the Constitution. The ANC leaders, including a few ministers who tried in vain to have Zuma recalled were also more concerned about Zuma costing them the majority support following the loss of major metros during the local government elections. And less so about constitutional violation. The governing party must reflect thoroughly on this if it wants to remain in power and if it wants everyone to abide by the rules that govern society.

When the Constitution is trampled upon all stakeholders are left vulnerable because they have no source for recourse. History teaches us that societies that shun the rule of law have the propensity for chaos, ungovernability and are fond of barbaric practices.

All right-thinking South Africans agree that the chaos in Parliament was disgraceful and an insult to our democratic project. We should find a remedy. The remedy is the Constitution.

The presiding officers of Parliament and the ANC make the mistake of reducing the cause of the parliamentary chaos to mere political differences. There shouldn’t be political differences on whether the Constitution is supreme. That matter was settled during the transitional negotiations where the ANC was a major player. It was subsequently confirmed by our courts.

Since the Nkandla ruling was handed down, the presiding officers never sat down to discuss its implications, seek legal opinion and find the best way to provide leadership to Parliament. They have never established an ad-hoc committee on the conduct of the president and Parliament itself. All they did was to take the judgement as mere legal opinion.

Imagine if we all reduced judgments against us as mere legal opinion that can be discarded. The failure to take the judgement seriously resulted in calls for vote of no confidence and chaos. But Parliament can still correct its ways, unless the presiding officers have decided to fathom the chaos until 2019. 

Allowing a constitutional violation to go unpunished at the highest level of government opens up space for anyone to break the law with the justification that the first citizen has done it. It is in this context that the violent scenes at the State of the Nation Address should be understood. 

From the perspective of the Economic Freedom Fighters MPs, who no longer recognise Zuma as president after his constitutional violation, breaking of parliamentary rules is permissible because the president has violated the country’s premier rulebook. 

Constitutional violation deprives the president the necessary moral authority to convince political opponents that he’s worthy to lead and be trusted. He increasingly sounds hollow. He adds colour to the hollowness by giggling, making light of a crisis for which he is the midwife. 

The the State of the Nation Address is no longer the solemn affair that it used to be under presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. The two were never found to have failed to uphold the Constitution. Even their vocal political opponents respected them. Normal parliamentary convention applied each time they spoke and opposition benches would rise and applaud them.
Weighed down by the unresolved constitutional violation, Zuma’s State of the Nation Address had neither vision nor spirit.

It was typically a statement about government programmes cobbled together by officials who try very hard to make things work in the Presidency. But in the end, the speech had no discernible theme, no uplifting national message, no originality, no captivating turn of phrase and no message that appeals to individual citizens.

No doubt a number of government programmes mentioned in the speech are important, deserve attention and should form part of the national conversations. The proposed policies on land reforms, access to health insurance, student financial aid, expanding black economic empowerment avenues and using state procurement budget to create opportunities for black entrepreneurs under the rubric of radical economic transformation, are important issues.

But even valid policies emanating from hard-working ministers, government officials and state agencies are denuded of their weight because they are delivered by a president who lacks moral authority and who is yet to respond to allegations of state capture. 

The character of the messenger makes people doubt his message. Zuma tried to make up for his lack moral authority by tapping into security resources. But he doesn’t get it. By deploying security agencies to make up for lack of moral authority, there is a risk that the security forces, including the military, will have their public legitimacy destroyed. So, the crisis runs deep.

The use of force is not limited to Parliament. Zuma’s regular entourage of bodyguards is visibly larger than it was when he first took office. ANC members who protested against his leadership in Luthuli House were met with military resistance by a faction of ANC war veterans. 

Zuma’s lack of moral authority opens him to accusations that he is adopting populist policies which might be difficult to implement. In addition, lack of coherence in Cabinet due to his poor leadership, the increasing rate at which bills are referred back to Parliament, the influence of a coterie of presidential friends pursing their own agenda and divisions in the ANC ahead of the elective conference in December will frustrate sound policy making.

Skeptical investors are more likely to read populism in his radical economic transformation programme and flag it as a policy uncertainty or risk caused by a president who will be a lame duck in the next 10 months. 

The resounding message that came from the State of the Nation Address was that Zuma did not deserve praise. It’s the only thing the ANC and the opposition unwittingly agreed on. They frustrated the praise poet who was in the House to do just one thing: praise Zuma.

- Mkhabela is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria.

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