DEMOCRACY CRISIS OP-ED
South Africa faces crises on multiple fronts, threatening the democratic project and our constitutional values
South Africa is in the grip of a wide-ranging crisis, especially affecting the poor and other vulnerable people. The state has long failed to deliver a ‘better life’ to all, or even for many of its people. While violence and criminality remain widely tolerated, democratic life cannot flourish. A range of sectors needs to address and remedy these features to regenerate democratic life.
What is striking about the present moment in South Africa is that there are a range of crises at work at the same time. And in many cases, those responsible for these have been identified. In the main, they remain in the positions from which they have caused harm, failed to perform duties, failed to resolve problems affecting the wellbeing of the public, or have caused — or failed to exercise their powers to remedy – harsh conditions.
Very often, no consequences ensue. One might hope for criminal charges where these might be applicable or dismissal from positions of leadership or similar results.
The third Zondo Commission report on State Capture has accused several people, including ANC Chairperson and Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Gwede Mantashe. Also identified for potential prosecution is former minister Nomvula Mokonyane, who is the Head of Organising in the ANC, and is based in the organisation’s headquarters, apparently receiving a ministerial salary.
In light of the “step aside” rule that was applied to ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule when charged with corrupt activities, it is unclear what consequences will follow from being named as individuals who need to be investigated for potential prosecution. Will this affect their holding leading ANC and/or government positions?
It is an important test for the already drifting presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa, and many commentators speculate that he is likely to resist Mantashe being removed. This is because he is considered an important ally who is needed for the re-election of Ramaphosa as president of the ANC and the country.
What happens to Mantashe’s incumbency is not important in itself, insofar as he is not a good performer in government. Its significance lies in what it would mean for Ramaphosa’s decision-making and his respect for legality if charges are brought and he is allowed to stay in his position, when Magashule has been forced to vacate his position in similar circumstances.
It is a striking feature of the Ramaphosa presidency that there are many other people in prominent roles who are tainted through their reported involvement in facilitating crimes of the Zuma era and allegations that they have been associated with criminal wrongdoing.
They remain in the Cabinet and in trusted positions in ANC headquarters, as has been the case with Mokonyane, Malusi Gigaba, Bathabile Dlamini and others who have been named by Zondo, or who have been separately implicated in wrongdoing. All of these have been brought back into key positions during the Ramaphosa presidency. In many cases, this has coincided with the period when Magashule was secretary-general — a position he was allowed to occupy with considerable autonomy, and little oversight by Ramaphosa.
A condition of crisis on many fronts
The location of individuals with a questionable relationship to legality is part of a wider crisis involving, but also going beyond, the ANC, and affecting legality and constitutionalism more generally.
What runs through the South Africa of the poor is a range of features of their living conditions — sewage running through streets and homes, a lack of clean water and electricity, homelessness, unemployment of approximately 46% (or higher, especially amongst the youth where it is said to be 70%), and unsafe environments where there are continued threats and acts of violence especially against the already vulnerable.
In short, the most obvious crisis in South Africa lies in continuing and increasing inequality, where the life experience of the oppressed may in many instances be worse than under apartheid.
What progress may have been made in the early years of democracy has in many cases been eroded, or stalled. This applies to all the key markers of quality of living conditions.
The state no longer fulfils some basic functions.
- The state has not been able to fulfil basic needs, or lacks the resources to do so, even though it is required by the Constitution to provide basic services that fall within its responsibility. This is not simply because of financial constraints, but because of State Capture and corruption that is continuing.
- State incapacity in regard to violence is not simply a failure to fulfil the constitutional obligation to meet basic needs through “service delivery”, but goes wider. It entails the failure to provide a safe environment in the home, the workplace and at schools — for young and old. Violence is an omnipresent feature of South African society, and affects especially the poor who do not live behind high walls, locked doors and with other forms of security. Politics itself is suffused with violence, notably within the ANC, and we have seen repeated attacks and assassinations of rivals for positions.
- Organisations at a grassroots level, like the shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, are not allowed to exercise their right of freedom of political expression, and are subjected to continuing arrests and state violence.
- Police themselves are a source of criminality. Whilst crime is generally rife, it is aided by police corruption and the theft of arms involving police. Significantly, key police officers involved in tracking down police criminality have faced dire consequences. Lieutenant-Colonel Charl Kinnear was assassinated while tracking down those stealing arms from the police. General Peter Jacobs was shifted from his position as he oversaw investigations into police wrongdoing. And corruption fighter General Jeremy Vearey was purged from the police. These are not the only police to have faced such consequences.
- The state is not able to provide or enable safe living conditions to the public at large, and specifically it fails vulnerable groups in this regard. Gender-based violence, especially against women and young children, continues to be a stark feature of South African life. Despite supposed sensitivity training for police, many remain reluctant to report rape because of unsympathetic experiences. In the case of commercial sex workers, there appears to be impunity for perpetrators, with hardly any arrests or convictions. We also know that whatever the Constitution may say, LGBTQI+ individuals remain vulnerable to attack and do not enjoy protection from a macho police service in a macho society.
- We also must acknowledge the scourge of xenophobic violence, discourse and practices. Possibly the most vulnerable section of the population at present are those who may also be women or part of the LGBTQI+ category of people, but are also foreign-born people. These may be undocumented or fully entitled in law to be in South Africa. It is not foreign-born people who drive BMWs in Sandton or Constantia who are targeted for attack, but the poor who have often fled from terror, murder and rape in their country of origin. The state has done very little to stop attacks on these people which often happen in full view of and with the connivance of police. Such attacks are often perpetrated under the guise of ensuring that only those with a legal right should be allowed in the country. But in practice they do not distinguish between those with legal rights and those without. In many cases the call is for all foreign-born people from Africa and Asia to “go!”
For those who wish to regularise their residence or ensure that their documentation is properly assessed there are bureaucratic obstacles. Key offices of the Department of Home Affairs dealing with refugees remain closed, and when documents are submitted, it takes a very long time to receive an answer. Added to this, in many cases proper record-keeping is not observed.
‘Never’ compensate for harm done
The state is led by a liberation movement that was sheltered by people and countries from which many of the migrants to South Africa derive. The economic difficulties of many of these source states may have a lot to do with their post-independence leadership, but some of their problems are related to the relentless attacks on the industry and infrastructure of the states of southern Africa by the apartheid regime as punishment for sheltering the ANC and its army, uMkhonto weSizwe.
Despite all the years of xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals, especially those from southern Africa, and notably also from Nigeria, it does not seem that the government has been willing to acknowledge the harm that has been done, or to assert the universality of freedom through tangible actions to curb the violence wielded against foreign nationals. This is a repudiation of the ANC’s founding document, the Freedom Charter, which declares that South Africa “belongs to all who live in it, black and white”, not just its citizens.
It was reported that when Cyril Ramaphosa arrived in Nigeria last year, Nigerian government officials adopted a harsh tone towards South Africa. According to a South African diplomatic source, a Nigerian told the South Africans they should be held responsible as a government for every Nigerian that had lost property, been injured or killed by compensating.
“But we stood our ground and said ‘never’,” the source reportedly said.
“Standing our ground” and asserting “never” is language that suggests one has refused to compromise on a principle of which one is proud. It is an approach of defiance, of unwillingness to budge on issues that are at the core of important issues of principle, notably in relation to freedom.
Is it an appropriate response when Nigerians have been assaulted and murdered and their shops looted? Despite being far away from apartheid South Africa, Nigerians contributed significantly and made sacrifices for us to win our freedom.
Nigerian analyst Jude Ndukwe noted that Nigeria was the first country to provide direct financial aid to the now-ruling African National Congress from the 1960s, while in the 1970s, Nigeria supported the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) with an annual subvention of $5-million to help them in the struggle.
This was through a programme set up to cater specifically for their educational needs and general welfare through the Southern Africa Relief Fund (SAFR) to which then-president General Olusegun Obasanjo contributed $3.7-million.
Obasanjo made a personal donation of $3,000, while every member of his cabinet made donations of $1,500 each to the South African cause. Civil servants gave two percent of their income to the fund, then known as the “Mandela Tax”. In just six months, the fund had amassed $10.5-million which was sent to the South Africans.
The arrogant response to a call for compensation for harm is part of the general slippage of South Africa’s position as a champion of freedom as a universal right.
This is part of a wider failure of the state to perform its duties. The failure is not always manifested in political decisions, but also in a failure to protect key democratic institutions. The burning of Parliament at the beginning of the year has not yet been fully investigated, but what is already known demonstrates that clearly there were not adequate measures in place to prevent and deal with a fire.
The burning of Parliament, like the July uprising in KZN and Gauteng, may well have been an attack on what measure of democracy exists. Similarly, the smashing of the glass doors at the Constitutional Court would not have happened had there been adequate protective measures in place. Both attacks may represent a growing attack on constitutionalism.
It is a paradox that the dream of an ever-unfolding democratic life, which was primarily advanced by the ANC and its allies before 1994, may now be defended primarily by an unelected judiciary interpreting a Constitution that remains in tune with the aspirations of all who cherish freedom.
It is important that this be buttressed by steps to entrench non-violence as a principle in everything we do. Without non-violence, there cannot be human rights or democracy. Insofar as politicians have not taken up this call, organisations and sectors in society that are faith-based, popular organisations, trade unions, professionals and businesses, amongst others, need to do so.
As long as the violence described above is widespread, democratic life cannot be sustainable. DM
Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.
This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: polity.org.za