Opinionista Ebrahim Fakir & Brad Cibane 27 February 2015

In defence of Zuma’s right to hold office

The Rand Daily Mail Online this week ran a pernicious column originally published in the Sowetan newspaper, written by Prince Mashele. The piece was recycled from an earlier column in 2012 in which Mashele argued, “Zuma’s ascent to power could not be understood without a deeper appreciation of rural psychology”. In a sniggering manner, he suggested Zuma had been “marketed to lowly ANC members as a leader who is like them, who dances like them, is uneducated like them, is morally and ethically flawed like them. When 'ruralitarians' see someone from their village on television, they interpret it as a representation of their own village”.

Both columns, the original and the retread, launched an ill informed and ad hominem broadside at what Mashele considers the “uneducated and illiterate” in general, and at President Jacob Zuma in particular. He laments that in South Africa, “functional illiterates have made it all the way to Parliament” and he argues that we should “be governed by the best in society”. Of course his benchmark for the best in society is that they must be “educated”, by which he means, “qualified and certificated”. Mashele then goes on to point an accusing finger at black South Africans, suggesting they are idiots for electing Zuma into office. Comparing South Africa’s political system to Kenya’s, Mashele wrote, “Yes, Zuma can be a herdsman in Kenya — not a president. But, for some inexplicable reason, black South Africans fancy themselves better than other Africans.”

He obviously hadn’t thought about what other Africans, specifically Kenyans, think about the certification and qualifications criteria they might have in their law to hold office. Incidentally, the threshold that must be met to hold political office in Kenya is a fundamentally illiberal requirement and is an unnecessarily exclusionary impediment, barring people without specific qualifications from holding political office. Basically, it reduces political office to a profession, and reduces politics to bureaucracy. It equates politics with bureaucracy and state management with clerical administration. Apart from this silliness, and the repeated hominem attacks on Zuma and the lampooning of black South Africans, Mashele’s column was effectively an assault on the virtues of freedom, equality, rights and civil liberty. In framing his argument, Mashele betrayed a poor grasp of the foundational values of democracy as a type of society, and democracy as a form of government.

Let us dispense with Mashele’s assault on the sensibility of ordinary blacks. This was not new. It is a popular middle class black and white suburban refrain, first articulated by the Apartheid era National Party in a 1948 pamphlet that said, “The task of white South Africa with regard to the native is to Christianise him and help him culturally. Native education and teaching must lead to the development of an independent and self-supporting and self-maintaining native”. The simplest and most pithy response to this, which Mashele might do well to heed, came from Nelson Mandela in an interview in 1961: “You don’t have to have education to enjoy fundamental rights. You have aspirations; you have claims. You have rights. They have nothing to do with how much education you have.” The right to hold public office is precisely such a right.

The South African Constitution gives every adult citizen the right to stand for public office and, if elected, to hold office. There is no evidence to support the claim that educated or qualified and certificated elites form better governments. If anything, the idea has been used to marginalise certain individuals and groups from holding political office and participating in public life on the basis of their race, class and gender. In any event, South Africans can find the most educated, qualified and certificated leader just north of its border, where politics have been turned into a dynastic struggle and the institutions of state and society have been reduced to penury, empty shells involved in the management and administration of itself, rather than existing in service of managing and administering the affairs of state, society and economy.

Perhaps most importantly, in South Africa, an overwhelming number of blacks were either denied an education or are undereducated. Bantu Education was designed to teach African learners to be ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’. Those who survived Bantu Education rarely made it to universities and colleges. Yet, hundreds of thousands of blacks, illiterate or otherwise, dedicated their lives to the liberation of our society. If they were good enough to secure our freedom, rights, liberty and equality, then they must be good enough to become our leaders. It is revolting bigotry, if not utter stupidity, to create arbitrary and unreasonable exclusions to the holding of public office.

Of course, Mashele is entitled to argue for his view requiring certification and qualification as a criteria to hold public office, wrong-headed as it might be. Many tweets and Facebook posts suggested this. Some were revolted by Mashele’s ad hominem insults on the person of Zuma, and his assault on the freedom to stand for and hold public office unfettered by unreasonable disqualification. Others said we were “being intolerant of Mashele’s view and his right to express this view”. This is false. We are not intolerant of his view. We are intolerant of the hubris and the bigotry. We are intolerant of the assault on equality and on everybody’s right to hold public office if elected to it. 

The philosopher John Rawls devotes a large section of his influential book A Theory of Justice to this very problem and asks whether a just society should or should not tolerate something that it considers “intolerant”. He also addresses the related issue of whether or not the intolerant have any right to complain when they are not tolerated within their society. Rawls’ conclusion is that a “just” society must be tolerant; therefore, the intolerant must be tolerated. Otherwise the character of that society would be “intolerant”, and therefore unjust. However, Rawls qualified this conclusion by insisting, like Mashele’s apparent hero Karl Popper, that society and its institutions have a reasonable right of self-preservation that supersedes the principle of tolerance.

In Rawls’ words, “While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger.” What Mashele effectively advocated for is that the equality, freedom, and right of people to hold political office in society must be constrained by the threshold of “certification”. This is an intolerable view, one we suggest that South Africans, unlike Kenyans, should not countenance

There are many good and valid reasons to criticise Jacob Zuma’s political and governmental leadership. There are also good reasons why some people are excluded from holding public office. South Africa’s Constitution and Laws deal with these justified exclusions adequately. Jacob Zuma’s perceived lack of certification and qualification is not one of them. DM

Brad Cibane is a Franklin Thomas Fellow and an LLM Candidate at the Harvard Law School. Ebrahim Fakir was Ruth First Fellow for 2014 at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and is head of the Political Parties and Parliamentary Programme at EISA. He serves on the Advisory Council of the Council for the Advancement of South Africa’s Constitution (CASAC).


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