Don't encourage us
23 April 2014 16:47 (South Africa)
Politics

Judicial review: An anatomy of cock-up

  • Stephen Grootes
  • Politics
GROOTES_A salutary lesson in bad spin

On Monday the justice ministry released the terms of reference for a review of the judgments of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal. If you look through those terms, you'll search hard for anything that would threaten our democracy, or reduce the powers of the Constitutional Court. In fact, it's downright innocuous. It's really a tender, a Treasury document, for a research institution to investigate how our courts have ruled, and the impact of their judgments. So why then the sound and fury leading up to it? What went wrong, and what does it tell us about our country, and our politics? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

One of the first and greatest lessons of spin is that first impressions count. Almost for everything. The first place that government got this entire issue wrong is in the person who broke the news that there would be a review in the first place. It's impossible to know what Jimmy Manyi's tenure as Cabinet spokesman would have been like if he had not been appointed just as the storm over his "overpopulation of Coloureds in the Western Cape" comments was peaking. Perhaps he would have had an easier ride. Perhaps he would have felt more confident in speaking more freely. But alas, the background to his appointment, and the politics of the Black Management Forum, meant that he was always going to face a distrustful, sometimes hostile media pack.

And yes, the media does hunt as a pack when it comes to a character like Manyi. However, he doesn't help himself by repeating his refrain of "trust me". For a pack that cut its teeth on Thabo Mbeki's famous phrase (about Jackie Selebi) it was never going to wash. As a result, when it fell to him to announce this review, he was going to face much tougher questions than almost any of his predecessors would have faced. And, because of the position in which he found himself, he was almost unable to respond to them. It wasn't his decision after all, but one made by Cabinet.

But we have to say, we did warn government this could happen. When Manyi was appointed we said that one day, there would be a situation in which government would need South Africans to trust it. And we said that Manyi was not the person who could pull that off given the current climate around him. As usual, we were ignored (Stephen, really, this arrogance is becoming intolerable – Ed). But so it has come to pass. And let's not muck around, it's the Constitutional Court that we're playing with here, it's hard to think of a more important issue.

Then we had the interview with President Jacob Zuma in The Star. In that, he seemed to hit out at the court, saying that some dissenting judgments seemed have more logic than majority judgments. It was startling display of presidential ignorance of how the system works. And it was not something he could claw his way back from. In short, this interview should never have happened. Zuma should have been prepped, told that this issue would come up. If he then ignored that advice, well, there's nothing anyone could do to help him. The point is, with his history, it was easy for so many of us to fear the worst.

And this is the fundamental point that needs to be understood amid all of this. It's normal for the cynical members of the population, including the media-rati, to distrust government. That's part of their function and resulting nature. But what's happening here is that the levels of distrust are in the red zone. Given the fact the Constitution is really a product of the ANC, and that many of its members, particularly its more senior members, are hugely proud of it, you would think that it would have been easy to put out this particular fire. The fact that so many people don't trust the Zuma ANC is what led to it becoming a conflagration.

In many other democracies, it would be fair to expect government to pick up the pieces, learn from the mistakes, and move on. That's not going to happen here. As we've argued before, what happens in the media doesn't matter to the ANC. The media doesn't have a role to play in ANC politics, apart from being a useful conduit for leaks. We are not a media democracy, and the party works in other ways. As a result of this, Zuma etc. are not likely to really make any changes. It doesn't matter if the government spokesman gets things wrongs, or creates the wrong impression, or just infuriates a large section of the body politic (anyone remember "tolls are here to stay, just get used to it"). In fact, if the conspiracy theorists can be believed, Zuma may even get a kick out of making life unpleasant for the media.

The problem with this is that it's the people, the ordinary citizens, who're getting the short end of the stick. It's them who receive the ultimate message, not the media. We're just messengers who chuckle and move on. It's one of those situations where the closed politics of the ANC conference leads to the screwing of the electorate. It's not something that's going to go away. It's a structural issue that is likely to always suit the person who happens to be in power. So, to quote a certain spokesman, we are likely to just have to get used to it. And so our levels of trust will simply sink further. With consequences for all of us. DM



Photo: Jimmy Manyi – facing the hostile media pack. DAILY MAVERICK/Sipho Hlongwane.

  • Stephen Grootes
  • Politics


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