President Jacob Zuma and the version of the ANC he currently leads are, for obvious reasons, not great fans of the Latin maxim “veritas liberabit vos” — the truth will set you free. There are many recent examples of this disdain for the truth (and the disdain for ordinary citizens this represents), but nothing illustrates this fact more clearly than the manner in which our government is dealing with the crisis arising from the killing of several of our troops in the Central African Republic (CAR).
When a government believes that its own actions are justifiable and that the vast majority of citizens would support it if they knew all the relevant facts relating to a specific event or action, it will have nothing to fear from telling its citizens the truth. But when a president and the members of the party he leads know that their intensions are dishonourable and that the support of voters could not be guaranteed if those voters were told the truth, that president and the members of the party he leads will invariably try to hide the truth, attack the patriotism of those who ask for more information, call into question their motives and invoke national security in order to avoid having to face up to their own dishonesty and questionable motives and actions.
When a president and the governing party have nothing to fear, they will trust the citizens of that country enough to play open cards with them. An open, transparent and essentially honest government respects the inherent human dignity of every citizen — whether that citizen is a tenderpreneur, a teacher, a taxi driver, an informal trader or a social grant recipient. For ordinary citizens, it is profoundly empowering when a president and his government display such honesty. This is because through such honesty the president and his government signal their willingness to treat all citizens as individuals with an equal moral worth, capable of making informed decisions about who they are, how they wish to live and what is best for them and their children. It signals a relationship of trust between citizens and those servants temporarily elected to govern citizens.
Conversely, when a president and his government are deceitful or when they attempt to hide the truth from citizens, it reveals their disdain for ordinary citizens and for the democratic process. For such a secretive and dishonest government, citizens are not fully human: they have no right to ask questions or to be informed about government actions. Neither do they have a right to take part in debates about the wisdom of individual government policies or actions or to try and influence such actions to prevent the government from making more deadly mistakes in the future.
Citizens are treated as chattels — good for working at minimum wages in the mines, cleaning the streets or earning money for big corporations and the government who taxes these corporations. In such a quasi-democracy, the president and his government will promise not to wage war on their obedient corporate servants as long as pesky citizens do not demand to be treated with the honesty and respect that every human being deserves as of right.
Unfortunately, the cynical speech delivered by President Jacob Zuma at the memorial service for those of our soldiers who died in the CAR suggests that President Zuma does not respect the human dignity of ordinary South Africans. Neither does he respect the right of citizens to take part in the democratic process. In his speech, President Zuma stated that:
The problem in South Africa is that everybody wants to run the country. Government must be given the space to do its work of running the country to implement the policies of the ruling party that was voted into office by millions of our people. There must also be an appreciation that military matters and decisions are not matters that are discussed in public, other than to share broader policy. No country discusses its military strategy in public in the manner in which South Africa is expected to do in this country. Those who are engaging in this game should be careful not to endanger both the national interest and the security of the Republic while pursuing party political goals.
In a democracy in which the human dignity of all is respected, citizens do not only exercise their democratic rights (as individuals imbued with an inherent human dignity) once every five years when they vote for the political party of their choice. In his magisterial Doctors for Life judgment, former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo affirmed that democracy requires more than “allowing” citizens to vote every few years. Rather democracy also includes a participatory aspect, as citizens in such a democracy co-run the country with the government temporarily elected to serve all citizens. Quoting from a General Comment of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Ngcobo stated that:
Citizens also take part in the conduct of public affairs by exerting influence through public debate and dialogue with their representatives or through their capacity to organise themselves. This participation is supported by ensuring freedom of expression, assembly and association.
Firmly placing this right to participate in the affairs of the country and to influence the manner in which we are governed in-between elections within an African and South African context, Ngcobo continued:
The idea of allowing the public to participate in the conduct of public affairs is not a new concept. In this country, the traditional means of public participation is imbizo/lekgotla/bosberaad. This is a participatory consultation process that was, and still is, followed within the African communities. It is used as a forum to discuss issues affecting the community. This traditional method of public participation, a tradition which is widely used by the government, is both a practical and symbolic part of our democratic processes. It is a form of participatory democracy.
In response to demands for more clarity, President Zuma now claims that ordinary citizens have no right to ask whether the government we elected acted correctly when it sent our sons to die in a foreign country for one of the various — often conflicting — reasons provided by different members of our government at different times. Neither, apparently, do we have a right to ask questions about the vague and often contradictory statements made about the reasons of the deployment of South African troops in the CAR.
As far as I am aware, citizens have not asked our government to reveal details of future military actions that could endanger our troops. Revealing such plans would obviously not be appropriate. But that is not the issue here. Ordinary citizens are asking why troops were sent to the CAR and for some honesty about what had really happened when rebel forces in that country killed 13 of our soldiers.
Not only do South African citizens have a right to ask these kinds of questions, they have a patriotic duty to do so. A failure to hold the government accountable and to demand some transparency would dishonour our troops and would make us all complicit in the attempt by President Zuma and his party to turn us into chattels with no inherent human dignity and no agency to decide for ourselves whether our government did the right thing or not.
The urgency of the matter is highlighted by the fact that we now have two directly contradictory statements from the Presidency about the deployment of troops in the CAR. When additional soldiers were sent to the CAR earlier this year, the Presidency stated that:
The employed members of the SANDF will assist with capacity building of the CAR Defence Force and will also assist CAR with the planning and implementation of the disarmament, demobilisation and re: integration processes.
But this week at the memorial service President Zuma changed his story, stating that:
When the security situation in the CAR deteriorated in late 2012, our government made an assessment that resulted in the deployment of 200 additional troops in the CAR as a protection force for the trainers and the military assets that were already in that country. These additional soldiers were not trainers. They were not deployed to train but as a protection force for the trainers.
It is difficult to see how both these claims can be true. The latest statement says nothing about our soldiers assisting with the demobilisation of rebels. It also explicitly states that the soldiers were not sent to assist with capacity building (or training) of the military. This obvious contradiction suggests that our government has not been honest with us about the real reasons for deploying more troops to a country in the middle of a civil war.
We are now told that our troops were sent to protect the trainers training the CAR military. But the SANDF itself admitted that our soldiers might have protected business assets. Who is lying? And how can it be treasonous to ask such questions? Moreover, if this new version is true, why was it so important to continue training the CAR soldiers involved in a civil war in which rebels expressed animosity to our presence there? What happened to South Africa’s previously stated commitment not to get involved in the internal affairs of another African country unless sanctioned by multilateral agreement by the UN or the AU?
Claiming that when citizens raise such questions they are potentially endangering the security of South Africa and of our troops, robs citizens of their dignity and of their democratic rights. It treats us all like minor children in a patriarchal and authoritarian household. But most of us do not live in that R200 million Nkandla homestead, but rather in a vibrant participatory democracy. If President Zuma does not like this, he can always retire to his security bunker at Nkandla. DM
Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.