Democratic institutions in South Africa are in disarray. Serious breaches of accountability have made it hard for the constitutional aspiration of responsive and transparent governance to become a reality.
Recently, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) filed court papers alleging that Acting National Police Commissioner Kgomotso Phahlane was involved in several dubious car transactions. This forms part of a broader IPID corruption probe against Phahlane.
Meanwhile, the Public Protector is considering whether to investigate the R30 million payout that disgraced former Eskom CEO, Brian Molefe, was given after his resignation. Molefe was parachuted into Parliament as an African National Congress (ANC) MP shortly after.
Former South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) CEO Hlaudi Motsoeneng continues to act as head of the SABC, despite court rulings that his appointment is invalid.
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), under Shaun Abrahams, had its independence questioned after charges against former finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, were withdrawn, when it emerged that there was no evidence of any crime when the decision to charge him was taken.
Parliament has become a site of factional ANC struggles, with Speaker Baleka Mbete presiding over the House in a compromised manner, due to her position as chair of the ruling party.
But the recent South African Social Security Agency grants debacle probably stands out as the most scandalous example of corruption and unrestricted conflicts of interest, simply because of the disregard the state showed for South Africa’s poorest and most vulnerable.
These are a few current examples of the corruption and undermining of the rule of law that happens regularly in South Africa. At the pinnacle of it all is President Jacob Zuma, who himself is corrupt and compromised. His conduct has set the example for some ministers and those within state-owned enterprises to act with impunity.
When the ‘rules of the game’ are consistently undermined, the effects on governance are severe. Those with the authority of the state are simply unwilling or unable to meet the socio-economic challenges with the commitment required.
When Zuma fired Gordhan, the substantial damage to the economy along with his failure to account went a step too far. The president has shown that he is prepared to ‘go rogue’ and act outside of the bounds of being reasonable, and purely in his own self-interest and that of his corrupt associates. When Zuma fired Gordhan, no reasons were given apart from a clearly false and kindergarten-like ‘intelligence report’ which indicated that Gordhan was plotting against Zuma.
Zuma later changed his story and said their relationship had broken down irretrievably.
It is the president’s prerogative to hire and fire cabinet ministers – but that prerogative must be exercised in an open, transparent and accountable manner.
The Financial Intelligence Centre Amendment Bill, aimed at preventing money laundering, passed through Parliament – yet Zuma has been slow in signing it. The insinuation is that he’s doing this to protect his friends, the Guptas. When a president is prepared to act outside of ordinary democratic practice; when the rules are undermined – it becomes open season for those who wish to follow suit.
It is easy in this context to lose sight of the importance of democratic institutions and focus solely on the political figures who act in unaccountable ways.
The focus on appointment processes must be continued. During the appointment process for the new Public Protector, transparency was laudable – but it is now clear that the quality of the candidate who eventually was appointed was compromised.
Given the media coverage on corruption and also on democratic processes, South Africans have plenty of information at their disposal. So how do people ‘join the dots’ between the information they have and a proper democratic outcome?
Civil society must be vigilant, but this requires sustained action within communities so that activism is more targeted. Creative ways must also be found to link common interests – in business, civil society and broader communities.
A revolution in good governance will need to start at the bottom. This takes time. It also means monitoring institutions such as Parliament far more closely, and taking public participation more seriously.
Public participation, as set out in Section 59 of the Constitution, extends to all areas of law-making. Indeed ‘public participation’ has been a watchword since 1994; however many communities have felt excluded from decision-making processes, especially at a local level.
Continuous education on participation processes will create a greater demand for accountable governance, thus creating a society in which those in power don’t merely pay lip service to the participatory democracy the constitution envisages.
The South African Federation of Trade Unions was formally constituted this past week. Led by former COSATU secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi, the federation has the potential to provide impetus for greater worker mobilisation. This will require focus and strategic leadership to prioritise workers’ issues, again creating the links between the poor state of labour relations, failed tender processes and corruption. Any new federation simply aimed at removing Zuma or criticising him will fail.
South Africa is stuck in a political crisis. Waiting for the ANC to fix itself – or indeed for its organisational renewal – is a luxury people can’t afford. Citizen action must be sustained if corruption and cronyism are to end.
There is also the rise of ‘fake news’. The Bell Pottinger campaign around ‘white monopoly capital’, for instance, has demonstrated how far the president and his associates will go to muddy the waters between truth and lies.
A strong media delivering fact-based news is an essential cog in the wheel of a democratic society, and will play a big part in South Africa’s ability to retrieve itself. Citizens must keep an eye not just on the personalities, but also continue to work to strengthen the country’s democratic institutions, to ensure better governance and outcomes for the most vulnerable.
Written by Judith February, ISS consultant