The public is justifiably outraged at the expenditure on the private home of president Jacob Zuma. It was with some generosity that the Public Protector concluded that he had not intentionally misled parliament. If we assume this finding was correct, then it nevertheless illustrates a degree of detachment that the president has from what is happening around him, especially where he is being enriched. It does not seem that president Zuma in the days after release of the Public Protector’s report had any appreciation of the magnitude of the scandal that he has allowed/encouraged and visited on the people of South Africa, in the home improvements at Nkandla. He simply carried on dancing as if there was nothing untoward and everything continued as before. And, sadly, in expecting few personal repercussions, he may well be right.
Likewise, there is no sense of responsibility on the side of the ANC to explain how funds required for providing basic needs were diverted into Nkandla upgrades. This is a year where we have had countless protests around the right to live in conditions fit for human beings: rights enshrined in our constitution, rights which the president and other public representatives are constitutionally obliged to uphold and advance. Some of those who cry out in pain and anger would have been able to enjoy clean water, live in safe housing and walk in paved streets had money not been diverted, had the constitution not been subverted.
One of the reasons why president Zuma has a sense of tranquillity is that he will not suffer and may in fact gain materially from the fall out. For all we know he is unlikely to repay any of the funds for the improvements, as recommended and if he were - compelled to do so he would simply call on one or other shady character to help him out. That would be readily done for the person who assists knows that s/he is part of a cycle of mutual enrichment and that s/he will be repaid in one of a range of ways, including lucrative contracts. In the end, if past patterns are followed it may well be that Zuma earns even more from this process.
The Nkandla scandal is more than a huge fraud. It is a crisis of democracy and epitomises a wider series of crises, (including the question of violence and broader governance crises). What is the weight of our constitution if we cannot hold Zuma and the many other mini-Zumas, proto-Number ones accountable? The ANC will be voted back into power. From what we can see, even if they were to ditch Zuma as too embarrassing there are many others who would come forward and play a similar role.
The crisis may suggest a more profound phenomenon signifying our simultaneous enfranchisement and disenfranchisement as a people. We have the vote but its effect has been neutralised. The struggle for universal suffrage was a central feature of the struggle for liberation.
The franchise is referred to as a universal right and that immediately counterposed it to apartheid law. It is referred to as a right accruing to adulthood and that resonated for a people who were treated as children, called ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ no matter what their age. That is why early African nationalism often deployed the discourse of ‘recovering manhood’.
The crisis for us, the citizens of South Africa, is that the power of the vote has been undermined. One of the hard lessons of the last 20 years is that there is a very limited relationship between what one votes for (in manifestoes) and what one gets. The current ANC leadership, by negating their oaths of office, by failing to abide by the constitution, have devalued the significance of enfranchisement.
The struggle for the vote was a long and hard one for which many people gave their lives. One cannot lightly dismiss the importance of elections, even if their value is being undermined. But if we wish to defend constitutionalism, we need to build organisations and processes additional to electoral contests. This does not mean oppositional politics alone, for what is needed now is not only resistance to legislation attacking peoples’ rights and acts of violence and fraud. We also need a broad coalition of people to advance a programme that can defend and advance democracy and transformation. Current efforts to build alliances and unity need to be broadened. NUMSA has said that the Freedom Charter must be implemented ‘in full.’ Without fully interrogating what that means, the spirit of that demand is for realisation of rights affecting all those who suffered under apartheid and continue to experience denial of their basic needs. For that sentiment to be realised, current unifying initiatives need to be augmented. Broad social forces need to be harnessed, including all who are ready to defend the constitution and the poorest of the poor, wherever they are located, who still do not enjoy the rights for which we struggled.
Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, is an analyst and professional public speaker on current political and historical questions. He writes a regular column and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Polity.org.za. Suttner is a former political prisoner and was in the leadership of the ANC-led alliance. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com.