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Zuma barely respects the Constitution. Why should anyone else?

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

The weekend greeted us with more allegations of President Jacob Zuma’s failure to keep to his Constitutional duty by declaring all his assets and interests. After we learnt he was willing to fiddle with the independence of the judiciary, again outside of his Constitutional bounds. If the “commander in chief” doesn’t keep to the Constitution – in letter and spirit – why should the rest of the government? Why should the ruling party? Why should society as a whole?

The moral fabric of a country (to borrow a ponderous term from the 19th century) is like trust: once gone, it is never coming back. If there is one thing that has defined Jacob Zuma’s tenure in public, it has been the almost gleeful way in which he tugged at the loose threads of the fabric.

Pick a scandal: The arms deal (and the rabble-rousing outside the Pietermaritzburg high court), the rape case, the appointment of the sycophantic Menzi Simelane as head of National Prosecuting Authority, the handling of cooperative governance minister Sicelo Shiceka following the reports of the unspeakable liberties he took with the public purse, the small matter of the police commissioner Bheki Cele and Roux Shabangu and the extension of the Chief Justice’s term – our president hasn’t exactly covered himself in constitutional glory, has he? In each circumstance it was as if he was trying to see how close he could get to the edge without tumbling us all into the Republic of South Banana.

It’s understandable how a president could cock up the really difficult things (like not diddling your friend’s daughter), but he’s tripping up on straightforward, non-debatable issues too. The Mail & Guardian reported on Friday that Zuma may have failed to declare all his assets. In March 2010, Zuma was under the same cloud when the Public Protector found he’d acted wrongfully by not declaring his assets before the deadline.

Last week the Constitutional Court found that, in his attempts to extend the Chief Justice’s term, Zuma’s unilateral actions were “inconsistent with the Constitution and invalid”, and rendered his botched effort to have Ngcobo on for a few more years fruitless.

We might laugh, and indeed I have, many times since 2008. But it’s deadly serious. When Zuma was sworn in, he swore that he would “obey, observe, uphold and maintain the Constitution and all other laws of the Republic” before becoming “Citizen Number One”. The wording of the Presidential oath is very important – it strongly implies the President must not only obey the letter of the Constitutional law, he must also do so in spirit, especially when applying his discretion to decisions that affect us all. Thus, I find it well within my rights to judge him for appointing the politically compromised Simelane boss of the NPA, when the Constitution clearly demands a separation of powers.

The real problem arises when others in power and influence decide to emulate the president’s shoddy morals. Zuma will not be able to correctly deal with Sicelo Shiceka, Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, Bheki Cele, David Mabuza, John Block or the two ANC provincial leaders in KwaZulu-Natal who are tainted with corruption allegations – not when they themselves can pretty much tar him with the same brush.

The rot of unconstitutional behaviour has seeped down from the highest office in the land into the lower rungs of government. It will just as easily seep into society at large. I doubt individuals who are not under public oath or public scrutiny will find it more difficult to flaunt the Constitution than a president would. The result of a complete loss of morals and rule of law in a country are disastrous – ask Yugoslavia under Slobodan Miloševi?.

We will bang on this particular drum until the message is heard: The president should be the first to adhere to and obey the Constitution. It comes with the job. In South Africa, failure to do so can be disastrous for us all. Your move, Mr President. DM


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