In three months, one of 14 people shortlisted for the position of Public Protector will most likely step into the position vacated by Thuli Madonsela – barring any hiccups in the process. There is significant interest in this appointment because of the important role the Office of the Public Protector has come to play in society. But perhaps Madonsela’s courage and valiant work in investigating corruption and maladministration in government has made South Africans much too complacent. Tolerance of corruption and accountability failures are dangerous, especially when there is a false perception that it is someone else’s problem to deal with. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
In early April, a number of civil society organisations gathered at the Constitutional Court to map out a plan for the removal of President Jacob Zuma from office. This was after the Constitutional Court ruled that the president had violated the Constitution by failing to implement the remedial action in the public protector’s report on Nkandla. Several civil society leaders, struggle veterans, eminent South Africans and religious leaders were part of the initiative to mobilise against the “leadership crisis”. Part of the plan included nationwide dialogues and marches.
A week-and-a-half later, another gathering was held at UJ Soweto to discuss a plan to pressurise Zuma into resigning. The resolutions included:
Zuma has been addressing meetings around the country without disruption and this week even dropped a new dance move at an ANC election event in Johannesburg. The threatened campaign against him fell flat. There was no mass action, no sit-ins and no meeting between civil society organisations and the president. Despite objections to the ANC decision to accept Zuma’s apology for the “frustration and confusion” over Nkandla, civil society has done pretty much the same thing.
The president’s flouting of the Constitution, like many other controversies and scandals, is now water under the bridge. Who still remembers that a year ago, there was outrage over the fact that the South African government wilfully flouted a high court order to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir? The Supreme Court of Appeal in March dismissed the state’s appeal against this ruling, stating: “The decision by the South African government not the arrest Al-Bashir was inconsistent with South African law.”
South Africa has had the extraordinary experience of both the president and National Assembly violating the Constitution on the Nkandla matter and the government breaking the law in the Al-Bashir fiasco. These all occurred without consequences for the people involved and without demonstrable protestation from society.
Where protests have taken place, as they did in December after Zuma fired former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, these did not receive mass support. Despite the shock to the markets and the plunge of the currency, nobody was held accountable for an act of sabotage to the country’s economic stability. As a result, Zuma is able to remain dismissive of the massive financial losses after his appointment of Des van Rooyen to the finance portfolio.
In a written reply on Wednesday to a parliamentary question from the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) David Maynier, Zuma said the R99-billion loss to the Public Investment Corporation had been temporary “as is normal occurrence in speculative global and domestic attacks”.
“The analysis of the currency performance shows that the global and domestic events and shocks in the months from November and December 2015 were increasingly having an impact on the ZAR,” Zuma said. “These shocks included oils prices, figures from China, US interest rates; while at home the sovereign downgrading of South Africa in December and the changing of the minister of finance. The latter incident caused a spike in the rand and within three days, the rand recovered back to the pre-9 December 2015 levels.”
Pressure from business and ANC leaders led to Zuma shifting Van Rooyen to another portfolio and appointing Pravin Gordhan as finance minister. But society’s reaction to all these incidents has been helplessness and complacency. Had the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and DA not taken the Nkandla matter to the Constitutional Court, South African society would have been content to leave the non-implementation of the public protector’s remedial action unchallenged. Many people had in fact been critical of the EFF’s “pay back the money” protests, saying these were unnecessarily disruptive to the work of Parliament. What is the role of Parliament if not to hold the executive accountable?
South Africans are perhaps so scandal fatigued with constant reports of corruption infesting government that there might be a general acceptance that that kickbacks and abuse of state resources are part of the culture and normal course of business. With the lack of trust in the police, particularly the Hawks, and concerns about the credibility of the National Prosecuting Authority, there is an abnormal level of reliance on the Office of the Public Protector to investigate and take action against those engaged in corrupt activity.
While the public protector has powers to investigate and the remedial action cannot be ignored, as confirmed by the Constitutional Court, that office cannot pursue prosecutions. The dependence on the Public Protector’s office to stand guardian over the state is therefore misplaced as it cannot fill the gap of a dysfunctional criminal justice system.
Corruption Watch has been running an important campaign to ensure that society is fully engaged with the process of appointing a new public protector. This is to prevent a political minion taking up the position to render it toothless. In a statement about the institution earlier this year, Corruption Watch said: “This importance is not just about the individual holding office, although obviously this can make a big difference. But the public protector as an ongoing, permanent institution plays a crucial role in making sure that public power is exercised properly.
“It can also be argued that the process of selecting a public protector in itself strengthens democracy by prompting reflection and debate about what we expect from those who govern us, and how to hold them accountable for any shortcomings,” Corruption Watch said.
Too many people are however hoping for a duplicate of Thuli Madonsela to fill the post. She is seen as a superhero figure for the way she took on political heavyweights and refused to be cowed in her investigations. It is unlikely that any of the 14 candidates would follow her exact formula of running the office. But this is not to say that none of the contenders is worthy of the office.
The problem is that expectations are too high that the Office of the Public Protector should serve as the sentinel over society, protecting it from unethical and crooked people in the state. The public protector can and must fulfil its constitutional mandate but it cannot police the operation of government and make up for the accountability deficit in the country.
A good public protector cannot plug the holes when society fails to hold those in power to account. Neither can she or he be expected to supervise bad leaders to keep them in check. This is not one person’s job but the responsibility of an engaged, vigilant society. As Madonsela leaves office, the guardian angel mould that has been assigned to the public protector needs to be retired.
South Africa needs to stop hoping that a saviour will emerge to rescue the country and start behaving more like an engaged, mature democracy. As the unfolding events in Zimbabwe have shown this week with the #ThisFlag protests, mobilising society to take a stand against corruption and economic decline is not easy. But complacency and tolerance of bad leadership can be devastating and eventually impossible to reverse. DM
Photo: Johannesburg sunrise by Aaron Frutman via Flickr.
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