Mac Maharaj | What we must do to set our country compass right

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 ANC veteran Mac Maharaj calls for immediate action not only to arrest corruption but also to make certain participatory democracy is entrenched at the lowest level of democracy to ensure service delivery and accountability. Photo: File
ANC veteran Mac Maharaj calls for immediate action not only to arrest corruption but also to make certain participatory democracy is entrenched at the lowest level of democracy to ensure service delivery and accountability. Photo: File

In this edited version of a speech given at the Laloo Chiba Annual Lecture this week, ANC veteran Mac Maharaj calls for immediate action not only to arrest corruption but also to make certain participatory democracy is entrenched at the lowest level of democracy to ensure service delivery and accountability.

When I was invited to speak at this commemoration dedicated to Comrade Laloo Chiba, I hesitated. I asked myself what kind of contribution I could make to honour a comrade who devoted his life to the cause of freedom.

While we can never be certain how a deceased comrade would act in the current situation, we are on safe ground if we recognise that Cde Isu would be deeply concerned about the current state of our country. We all share this concern. This shared anxiety is the entry point of my contribution.

I believe we agreed that our country is poised at an inflexion point in our march to freedom  – some would say that we stand at the edge of a cliff.

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At the 54th conference of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president by the narrowest of narrow margins – he obtained 51.90% of the vote. The Zondo Commission has shown beyond any doubt whatsoever that South Africa was trapped  in corruption – corruption so widespread that we have to ask ourselves what had led it to become integrated into the system, to become systemic.

We also know that a host of institutions that make up our democracy were being hollowed out so that the looting and plunder of our country’s resources could take place with impunity. One shudders to think where our country would be if Cyril Ramaphosa had not been elected.

Even though we as a country have made significant progress in changing the lives of our people, we face the danger that unless we immediately undertake the right actions, we may wipe out that progress.

The rot has set in so deep that we are not yet out of the woods. Far from it.

In our debates and discussions about what to do, we are long on diagnoses and short on immediate and practical steps we have to undertake. Reaching the vision set out in the Freedom Charter and marshalling the country out of its current plight demands that we focus on the immediate measures we have to implement. If we don’t do so, then disarray and disillusionment with democracy will grow.

On the immediate agenda, three issues stand out.

The campaign to weed out corruption must be unrelenting and continue to gather momentum. The steps being taken to repair the damage wrought on the entire chain of the criminal justice system are beginning to bear results. We are only beginning to stem the tide of corruption. But it is critical that this campaign must grow into a national effort.

Secondly, we must disentangle service delivery from corruption and incompetence. Unless we do so at the local and municipal level, we shall give no cause for people to have faith in the future.

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Thirdly, we must take steps to give effect to ensure that this is done in ways that make citizens participants.

Let me briefly expand on these aspects.

The media and civil society played, and continue to play, a critical role in exposing corruption and enforcing accountability.

Armed now with the Zondo report, we cannot leave the task in government’s hands alone.

The Zondo Commission found that corruption largely involved the abuse of power. Zondo points out that no law criminalises abuse of power. He recommends that “consideration be given (by government) to the creation of a statutory offence rendering it a criminal offence for any person vested with public power to abuse public power vested in that person by intentionally using that power otherwise than in good faith for a proper purpose”. He goes so far as to suggest that we need legislation in terms of which this crime should carry a maximum penalty of up to R200m or 20 years in prison or both.

Abuse of power runs deep.  It lies at the heart of the conditions that enabled State Capture. Zondo suggests that the “axe should fall on any official, from the president of the republic who hands out a large portion of the national wealth or access to that wealth to a junior official who suspends a colleague out of motives of envy or revenge”.

We have to ask ourselves whether we should leave this process entirely to government and the political parties represented in Parliament. Left to government and the political parties, the campaign against corruption carries the danger that it will descend into a stop-start faltering effort trapped in the vicissitudes of pushbacks by those implicated, factionalism and point scoring among our political parties. 

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Nothing  prevents  a civil society organisation from drafting the necessary legislation. It could draw in academics in the legal field into the process. Armed with this draft bill, it should lobby  the leaders of the political parties  to the table and promote it in Parliament, if necessary, as a private member’s bill.

Let each party be canvassed, and let those who are unwilling stand exposed for paying lip service to fight corruption.

Why has no one undertaken this task already? Zondo made his proposal in Volume 2, part 2, which was made public on February 1 2022.

In the 10 months that have elapsed, we have left the task of preparing the necessary legislation for government and the political parties. And there is no draft in sight.

This lapse brings to the surface the reality that the function of civil society is not confined to defending our democracy. Its role should be expanded to becoming proactive partners in building and making our democracy work. Our Constitution provides enough space for this.

Another example: It is common practice for employees to resign before disciplinary proceedings commence.  Zondo informs us  that there is no legal recourse available to address this issue. We ask: Is this not a matter that could be addressed through Nedlac [National Economic Development and Labour Council]? None of the sectors represented in Nedlac is precluded from bringing a matter of national interest to Nedlac where government, business, labour and civil society are represented. Surely, the unions have an interest in and are best placed to play a significant role in preventing people from getting away by resigning before disciplinary proceedings commence.

It is a common cause that local government is the coal face for the delivery of services. The Auditor-General’s reports have long pointed to the dismal state of municipal and district councils. Communities despair of the delivery of basic services.

Is this not the place where we should be initiating and implementing measures where participatory democracy should be rooted?

Our legislation provides for establishing ward committees. Despite our desire to create a people-centred and participatory democracy, little has been done to make ward councillors engage in the ward committees in ways that involve the communities. It should be a forum where communities have a say in what services should be prioritised for their area, as well as monitoring and giving feedback, on whether funds allocated in the local government budget for their area have been used for the purposes for which they were allocated.

This again is an area relating to the building of our democracy that cannot be left solely to the elected councillors. Civil society needs to carve out a role for it to become an active partner in making our democracy participatory.

While I raise these issues as challenges to civil society, I am mindful of the centrality of the ANC putting its house in order.

We need to remind ourselves that we learn more from our mistakes than from our achievements. The obstacle to learning from our mistakes arises because attempts to interrogate the experience of 28 years of building our democracy become enmeshed in playing the blame game. We cannot resist using mistakes – be they acts of omission or commission – to score points in inter-party rivalry and intra-party jostling for access to opportunity and power.

Our Constitution is founded on the understanding that the tension between the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, and the Chapter 9 institutions is what makes our democracy dynamic. Included in this dynamism is the tension between these state organs and the media and civil society. This tension provides the guardrails against the exercise of power and patronage trampling on the fundamental rights of citizens.

I remind ourselves of these simple propositions because they provide the framework within which the renewal of our country, as well as the ANC, has to take place.

The ANC engages in propaganda because its purpose is to justify, explain and enlist the support of the public. Walter Sisulu, under whose tenure as secretary-general, the ANC became mass-based, always found it necessary to explain that in carrying out our work we must never mislead the people, never tell them lies, and above all, never cause division among the people. The implication of this is straightforward: we should not be afraid to take people into confidence when we have made mistakes and we should use such occasions to draw lessons for the future.

Regretfully, these precepts seem to be forgotten by so many involved in the factionalism and jostling for access to opportunity, patronage and power. For such people, self-interest trumps national interest.

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Lessons learnt in the process of becoming a mass party helped us to successfully steer a path during many crises we faced. We succeeded because we stayed true to Sisulu's message.

The democracy we fashioned is intended to liberate the citizenry, to ensure that they have a platform from which they can better continue our journey to freedom, a journey that we share with all humankind.

Yes, we find ourselves today filled with anxiety, anguish and even anger at the machinations that invade the ANC’s efforts at renewal. Our anxiety is heightened because there is no other political formation in our country that bears even the faintest promise to realise the vision encapsulated in the covenant we made in 1955 in the form of the Freedom Charter.

If we resolutely pursue the campaign against corruption, if we find ways to ensure service delivery happens, and if we ensure that our defence of democracy embraces the necessity to make it people-centred and participatory, we shall have set our compass right for the country. Setting our country on the right path is a necessary condition for the ANC to renew itself.

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