Defend Truth


Institutions Matter: Their strength or weakness determines the depth and quality of a democracy


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

This might well be one of the most fundamental lessons of post-apartheid South Africa thus far – our democratic institutions are meant to be living, breathing instruments that shape our society. Yet in so many ways recent political battles have seen weakened institutions struggle to maintain their independence in the face of an onslaught of political pressure. Where to begin?

Many of these battles have wended their way fully into the public domain. This past week has been nothing short of extraordinary, as we have watched the deeply compromised National Prosecuting Authority head, Shaun Abrahams, bring baseless charges against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

Gordhan himself has now hit back with a damning affidavit regarding the President’s friends, the Guptas, and their financial activities. Clearly Gordhan will not be going down without a fight. In many other countries, such damning information about those in power would be hidden; the media would be too afraid to publish or would be jailed for doing so. Not in South Africa.

The curious thing is that we all have far too much information at our disposal about the President and his corrupt band of cronies. This democracy may be faltering, apparently, but it is robust and the truth will out. The question for South Africa is always, now that we know, what do we do with the information and how does one extract accountability since we don’t indulge in that great British tradition of the political resignation?

There was never a greater moment to illustrate how much institutions matter than when Public Protector Thuli Madonsela left office on Friday. She did so with a bang, not a whimper, as President Zuma and the ineffectual Des Van Rooyen interdicted her from releasing her report on state capture.

As the tributes pour in for the remarkable Madonsela we are reminded of how much our country needs those at the helm of institutions to hold the line of independence and accountability. It’s not a job for the fainthearted and Madonsela’s demeanour has always belied her backbone of steel. She has left the Public Protector’s Office stronger, ironically largely as a result of the ConCourt’s judgment in the Nkandla matter.

Her successor has big shoes to fill. We need to give Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane the benefit of the doubt but her first interaction with the press was rather underwhelming. The singular test for Mkhwebane is whether she is able to balance the high profile cases with those brought by ordinary citizens whose rights have been violated. It will be a tough ask in this political climate and civil society will need to be equally vigilant in continuing to hold that office to account.

Despite the seeming paralysis within the ANC regarding the Zuma problem, some are finding their voices. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa issued a tame statement of support for Gordhan. He might have said that the charges have no basis in law and also that his boss should be recalled. But Ramaphosa has not yet reached the point of ending the frustrating forked tongue with which he speaks.

In Parliament, the ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu also recently found a voice in the ongoing and rather absurd saga involving Hlaudi Motsoeneng and the SABC. Mthembu also went further to question whether the ANC’s parliamentary caucus response to Madonsela’s Nkandla report was appropriate. One can’t help but see this as too little too late.

Parliament is now a hollow shell and saving the institution will require leadership which is united and has integrity. Mthembu unfortunately keeps bumping up against the Speaker, ANC party chair and Zuma loyalist, Baleka Mbete. It was Mbete who this week tried to play “pass the parcel” with Madonsela’s state capture report and then eventually seemed to receive an instruction that Parliament needed to keep the report in safe-keeping.

Of course we would do well to remember that the substantial weakening of Parliament has not happened overnight. In 2000, the arms deal inquiry dealt Parliament a fatal blow as members of the executive stymied Parliament’s investigation into the deal and decent men like Scopa chair Gavin Woods and ANC MP Andrew Feinstein found themselves in the political wilderness. Those were bewildering days and then Speaker Frene Ginwala displayed alarming executive-mindedness. In part, the failure of Parliament then to lance the arms deal boil has led to the current political paralysis we find ourselves in today. So, institutions matter.

We can say though that something in the ANC is stirring – or perhaps it is more accurate to say something within a part of the ANC is stirring. That is due to external factors and a looming change in the power balance. Rats leave sinking ships and Zuma is well aware of that and increasingly his inner circle has closed rank.

But the status quo is unsustainable and something will have to give. It really is only a matter of time.

Whatever the future holds we will need independent institutions led by those who have a loyalty to the Constitution and not individual power brokers.

The institutional turmoil at universities and the inability of the state to intervene has shown quite clearly that the paralysis within the ANC has widespread implications for the future. Democratic institutions, which include places of learning, are not built overnight. The painstaking process of creating a culture of transparency and accountability which has longevity and which is ingrained, takes time. While students have been calling for “decolonisation now” and for just about everything to “fall”, it is not clear what might rise in its place. Anarchy? Destruction? Rage or knowledge so limited it becomes worthless?

There seems to be a very naïve understanding that institutional capacity can be destroyed and then built up overnight. As we have seen from the battles for our democratic institutions, that is simply not feasible. It is simply not possible to “decolonise” the university curriculum “now”, as students demand. That requires careful restructuring and intellectual application. Anything less will simply result in the watering down of intellectual pursuit.

Universities by their very nature ought to be places where cross-pollination and argument thrive through convincing the other of a point of view. In the current South African situation, however, one wonders how trust can be rebuilt between students themselves and also between students and those who run the university and those who teach. This is a difficult question and business as usual will be tough. For now though every desperate attempt must be made to keep universities open and complete the academic year.

Those making unrealistic demands may do well to remember that many institutions do not recover at all once they have been hollowed out either by political interference, weak leadership or misguided ideological flights of fancy. The work of transforming institutions is slow and often painful. Tertiary institutions themselves have run out of ideas on how to solve an impasse that seems to have moving goalposts. A stronger state would have ensured a credible solution to the challenges of “now” and ensured that universities remained open. It’s a crunch week for universities and should they not reopen, the economic effects will be significant. Increasingly we will be considering the privatisation of university education, which will serve only to further entrench inequality.

So the more immediate task of governing remains and along with that the challenge of preserving the value within all our institutions, no matter how flawed they might be. Ironically, it is the universities crisis that has, more than anything else, become a leitmotif for South Africa’s unresolved past, its persistent inequalities and its inability to articulate an inclusive vision of the future. DM


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