Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Zuma may be gone, but how do we avoid a repeat of the disaster?

2018-09-06 08:59
Former president Jacob Zuma.

Former president Jacob Zuma.

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The ruinous presidency of Jacob Zuma alerted us to dangerous holes in our constitutional democracy. But there seems to be no comprehensive effort to prevent a recurrence. 

Neither the governing party nor the opposition parties have proposed innovative measures to make sure that the person who holds the executive authority of the republic is fit and proper. 

The forced resignation of Zuma from the highest office provided a conducive environment for a nonpartisan discussion on how best to mitigate against the rise of destructive figures in future. Failure to have this discussion makes Zuma's removal from office look like it was just a small matter of internal ANC palace politics. 

It shouldn't be. Zuma was president of the republic as a whole. His removal has to be fully explained even though he was forced to quit through the internal recall mechanisms of the party. 

The explanation must include the fact that he should never have been president in the first place. But it shouldn't come across as if he is being personally targeted. It should be the beginning of setting out minimum qualifications for a president.

The Constitution demands too much from the holder of the office and gives him or her too much power. Yet, it doesn't say what kind of person will be able to fulfil the task and is thus eligible to be nominated by the National Assembly to contest for election.

What Parliament has done now was simply to implement the instruction from the Constitutional Court to develop a procedure that would regulate the impeachment of a president. The Constitution provides for the removal of the president from office through a vote of no confidence as well as through impeachment (although it doesn't overtly use this term). 

While the vote of no confidence is a straight forward issue of numbers and does not require any investigation into the president's conduct, there is no processes to give effect to Section 89 of the Constitution, which envisages an impeachment process due to constitutional violations. 

Parliament's Rules Committee has unanimously adopted the rules to guide an impeachment process that includes an investigation into the president's conduct. The National Assembly will soon adopt them.

But this doesn't solve the problem. It's a reactive solution. The real proactive solution lies in amending the Constitution and developing further rules to set minimum qualifications and standards for the job of the president. 

It doesn't serve our constitutional democracy well that members of Parliament and members of Cabinet, including the president, have the same bare minimum requirements for jobs that give them vastly different powers.

We need different levels of qualifications. (By qualifications I don't mean narrowly academic, but broader testable competencies and ethical compliance tailor-made for political office bearers, not bureaucrats.)

The lack of differentiated minimum standards means, as things stand now, any Member of Parliament (MP) qualifies to be president of the republic. Nothing in the Constitution prevents Faith Muthambi, for example, from being president. Nor would anything have prevented Mduduzi Manana while he was an MP.

I can almost predict a response to this effect: "That will never happen! Faith Muthambi?" But, if it's not prevented by the law, what will prevent it from happening? 

It has become clear that internal party political processes are insufficient to guarantee a reasonably ethical and competent president. None of our political parties have a criteria of leadership selection that includes ethical conduct, tax compliance, a credit profile and basic understanding of the Constitution, to name a few issued that I think should be in the criteria basket.

Had Zuma been subjected to basic checks based on this, the red lights would have been triggered and a very loud alarm would have rung nonstop.

Adopting rules for impeachment of the president without setting out what kind of a person should be president in the first place, would mean the National Assembly prefers narrow compliance with the Constitutional Court's judgment. 

It would also mean the National Assembly is prepared to elect an incompetent president only to institute an inquiry against him or her soon after.

Nothing in the Constitutional Court judgment suggested Parliament shouldn't be creative. Indeed, the court made it clear that the National Assembly has a right to develop its own mechanisms provided they are in line with the law and the Constitution.

But our National Assembly is waiting for the next leadership disaster to strike before it reacts post facto. Such is the extent to which we are poorly represented. And we blame the masses when they riot instead of reporting their grievances to honourable members of Parliament.

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

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Read more on:    jacob zuma  |  constitutional court  |  presidency


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