Obsessed with power, Zuma still doesn't understand Constitution

President Jacob Zuma (Photo: Gallo Images)
President Jacob Zuma (Photo: Gallo Images)

After 10 years as president of the ANC, just over eight as head of state, twice sworn to uphold the Constitution, and dragged to the courts countless times over constitutional blunders, Jacob Zuma still doesn’t understand the Constitution of the Republic.

In his political report to the ANC’s 54th conference, his last as president of the ANC, Zuma attacked aggrieved party members who approached the courts to seek recourse.

He urged ANC delegates to violate the Constitution of the country by urging the conference to consider adopting a resolution that would in future expel members who took the party to court.

“We have said before that if you take the ANC to court, you have taken yourself out of the ANC,” he said. He regretted that he and the ANC leadership had failed to implement this self-expulsion idea.

As a president of the country, whose main task is to uphold and defend the Constitution, Zuma should know that the Constitutional Court has ruled that political rights of party members are protected by the Bill of Rights contained in the Constitution.

The rights to join a political party and the participation in party political activities are not matters that political party leaders can arbitrarily offer or withdraw as they like. The rights are enshrined in the Constitution.  

Deriving their power exclusively from the Constitution, courts have to adjudicate disputes that arise from the threats or threat to violate such political rights. It’s not what irritates Zuma or not that matters; it’s what the Constitution demands. If Zuma had his way, it seems the Bill of Rights could be amended.

In the Ramakatsa judgment in 2012, ahead of the Mangaung conference, the Constitutional Court confirmed that the violation of the rights of political party members deserved a hearing by courts.

Political rights were at the heart of the struggle for freedom. There was a time during the apartheid era when joining certain organisations, including the ANC, was a harshly punishable crime. Zuma should know better, unless he participated in a struggle without a full appreciation of what it was about.

The apartheid government passed the Suppression of Communism Act which banned anyone from being a communist or member of the South African Communist Party.

The struggle for freedom, which essentially entrenched political rights of members of political parties – the right to join and participate in political activities – was meant not only to reverse political oppression perpetrated by the apartheid regime. It also meant to positively grant the rights to citizens.

Blighted by being in the position of power, Zuma is seemingly ignorant of the fact that restricting the rights of party members from seeking legal recourse is something that would make apartheid architects smile in their graves.

But he is concerned less about the constitutional rights of members than he is about the power of party leaders to impose their will on members. He sees the adjudication of intra-party disputes in court as a threat to the ANC. "It is gradually eroding the authority of the ANC," he said. He said nothing of the authority of the Constitution.

Zuma’s line of thinking is consistent with his approach in dealing with government matters. When he’s challenged in court to act rationally, lawfully and constitutionally, he sees it as an attack on his authority.

It has been a common theme of Zuma’s presidency: an obsession with the trappings of power and the retrenchment of accountability in the exercise of such power.  

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

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