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Op-Ed: Building unity to end civic powerlessness

Beneath the headline-grabbing clamour about Nkandla, “spy tapes”, the role of the Public Protector and many other issues that jostle for our attention, there is a deeper malaise - the threat to constitutional democracy and the nation-building process. By RAYMOND SUTTNER.

Watching these developments, many people have a sense of powerlessness in the face of evasion of constitutional responsibility over the Nkandla scandal and a range of irregular actions carried out with impunity. Apart from consequences for the rule of law, much of this thwarts efforts to address the deep structural inequality in our society.

If he is aware of the grave implications for South Africa’s constitution, democracy and society, President Jacob Zuma has decided his personal survival comes first and at the expense of the integrity of the office he holds and other public institutions.

Legally, it is argued that the Public Protector cannot enforce her own recommendations. She depends on parliament to act in good faith in ensuring that the president is held accountable and pays back a reasonable portion of the cost of the upgrade to his homestead.

Insofar as we have through representative democracy entrusted others to act on our behalf, and they are not discharging their duties, are we thereby rendered powerless? We are only powerless if we restrict our political role to periodic voting. We need to urgently address the question of strengthening constitutionalism through our own actions.

This brings to the fore the urgency of finding ways of uniting citizens around issues of common concern so that legal rights that are undermined do not rely purely on expensive litigation to find remedies. Litigation to obtain the spy tapes incurred R10 million in expenses. That is not available to address a range of grievances that need remedies.

When a law or a demand is supported by the power of the citizenry it is in a different category from one that has no constituency, and enjoys no social power.

It is not only in cases of failure to hold parliament accountable that constituencies need to be built in support of constitutionalism and democracy, but also in the case of rights where organised support is weaker than in the case of other rights. Here one thinks of the level of support for combatting racism, compared with the far smaller lobby for the right to freedom of sexual orientation and attempts to stop gender-based violence.

What does one mean by building unity?  How one conceives unity, and how broadly or narrowly one defines the basis for joining or associating with a unifying vision, will affect the character of the power that is wielded by those who join.

If one focuses one’s unifying vision on a specific doctrinal agreement, for example socialism or liberalism, one automatically limits the extent to which one can draw in those who are not seeking political action for doctrinal reasons but have an interest in common action in order to remedy what affects or potentially affects their wellbeing.

The initiative by NUMSA to form a united front could potentially be part of a broad united movement. But it can only be that if it recognises that the terms of engagement in such a front cannot be the same as the specific doctrinal basis that may be the predominant political orientation of NUMSA itself. The entire character of united front politics is dependent on a relationship of autonomous organisations manifesting a range of political outlooks, but joining together over issues of commonality. The ideological differences between the organisations may diminish through cooperation but the object of the front is not to eliminate all differences and demonstrate agreement on a specific ideology. The aim is to coordinate all the organisations around broadly common issues of concern.

It is important to locate the need for unity in the context of the problems of the specific period. Unlike the moment of the UDF in the 1980s any front that may be established now is not operating in a context of rightlessness. The UDF united people in a situation where the constitution itself was part of the problem. We need now to claim rights that are ours, to assert constitutionalism, legality and the need for clean government. This is the frontline of confrontation between any unifying force and those who violate our rights while purporting to act in our name.

If that is correct then it means that those who have an interest in securing legality are not purely the organised working class or even the poorest of the poor. Those having an interest in unity behind a constitutionalist and broad democratic programme are much wider. It may include some of the most downtrodden and excluded, who are not organised in any way. But it may also embrace other citizens including sections of capital who wish to secure a climate for business.

Building on the legacy of struggle and going beyond, drawing in others who value our democratic gains is the best possible way of ensuring accountability, addressing inequality and protecting constitutional democracy. It is also the most difficult and will take a painstaking process. DM

Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, is an analyst on current political questions and leadership issues. He writes a regular column and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Suttner is a former political prisoner and was in the leadership of the ANC-led alliance in the 1990s. He blogs at His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

[This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:]

Photo: Then former South African deputy president Jacob Zuma sings his signature tune ‘Lethu Mshini Wami’  as he addresses a crowd of supporters outside the Johannesburg High Court in Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday 14 February 2006.  EPA/JON HRUSA


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