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SA’s crisis-hit political institutions bode ill for the future

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Dr Imraan Buccus is a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral fellow at Durban University of Technology.

Living in South Africa is like being on a roller coaster. There are lots of ups and downs, and they are often very steep. The national mood can oscillate between jubilation and despair in a matter of months.

We are still getting to grips with just how much damage the kleptocracy that thrived under Jacob Zuma did to our society. That damage is not just about the vast sums of money that were stolen, and in many cases spirited abroad. Zuma also seriously damaged general confidence in the country and the state.

On paper, a measure like the National Health Insurance scheme should be a no-brainer. But many people who would usually support social democratic measures will not support this scheme for the simple reason that they no longer trust the state. In view of what has happened to Eskom, SAA, the SABC and other state institutions, this position is entirely understandable.

And, at the same time, we are still coming to terms with our collective disappointment in the fact that Cyril Ramaphosa has turned out to be a weak and indecisive leader; arguably without much charisma. With the exception of his early success with his Thuma Mina speech, Ramaphosa has not been able to lay out a convincing vision for South Africa. He has also failed to deal with the elements in his own party who are openly committed to restoring the kleptocracy.

But while the hope for a good leader who could quickly restore the damage is understandable, the long-term flourishing of a society is guaranteed, more than anything else, by the strength of its institutions. A society with strong institutions can survive a bad leader, and doesn’t require an extraordinarily good leader.

As we all know, Zuma worked assiduously, and effectively, to undermine the key institutions of democracy. He was very effective with regard to the intelligence services, the prosecuting authority, the tax authority and the police, and did serious damage to large swathes of the media. Parts of academia were compromised too, and we have still not got to the bottom of the political logic behind media reports of an intelligence role in the student protests of 2015. However, at its highest levels, the judiciary survived with its integrity intact, and our best investigative journalists were able to regroup and work from new platforms.

Institutions exist in society as well as in the state. The trade unions and the SA Communist Party both played a scurrilous role in Zuma’s ascent to power but, in the end, were able to turn against him. They were compromised but never entirely rotten. Without their opposition to Zuma we would not have been able to depose the kleptocracy.

The fact that we were able to depose the kleptocracy is no small feat. Many societies, including, for example Mexico and Angola, have lived under kleptocracies for a generation or more. We should take comfort from the fact that we were able to depose Zuma, and his corrupt cabal, with relative speed.

And while progress in restoring the integrity of our institutions seems painfully slow and uneven, the fact is that it is happening. Ramaphosa may not be a charismatic leader, but bringing credible leaders into our key institutions is a major gain. Of course, a lot more needs to be done, and with greater urgency too. The crises in Eskom and the National Prosecuting Authority have not been resolved and are both grounds for serious concern.

For years, South Africans have been reading solid investigative journalism about crimes committed by state officials, corporates and politicians. But while we continue to read about the actions of people like Markus Jooste and Floyd Shivambu, they appear to continue their lives with impunity. This seriously weakens public confidence in the state, and in the future. It leads to a general pessimism that has a corrosive impact on public confidence, and has impacts with damaging economic and social consequences.

But, while progress in repairing institutions is slow, it is happening. The fact that Zuma, and his key ally, former Durban mayor Zandile Gumede will stand trial is highly significant. It shows that while our institutions are slow they do work and there is no longer impunity for the powerful. If a former president, and a former mayor can be forced to account for their actions in court there is no reason why people like Jooste and Shivambu can assume they will continue to enjoy impunity. This is a major breakthrough in the restoration of public confidence in our society.

But while the work to repair our state institutions is underway, albeit far too slowly, the three major political parties – the ANC, DA and the EFF – are all in crises. We must be concerned by the fact that our political institutions are weakening at the same time as state institutions are slowly strengthening. In a democracy, strong and credible political parties are essential.

The ANC remains divided between the reformers, grouped around Ramaphosa, and those grouped around Ace Magashule, who aim to restore the kleptocracy. The group committed to reform is itself divided between a left faction, led by the SACP, and a neo-liberal faction led by Tito Mboweni.

These divisions in the ruling party, and the fact that there continues to be a faction openly committed to restoring the kleptocracy, seriously weaken the reform project, a project that is vital to securing our future.

The Democratic Alliance is split between its largely white old guard that wishes to retain control over the party and a largely black faction that was itself deeply compromised by its association with Herman Mashaba’s crude right-wing populism. The return of Helen Zille, with the backing of the increasingly right-wing Institute for Race Relations and the resignation of Mashaba, both pose real risks to the future of the party.

The party has also been deeply compromised by its alliance with the EFF in Pretoria and Johannesburg, and revelations about deep corruption on the part of the EFF. Some kind of split or implosion seems inevitable.

The EFF is also in deep crisis. There is clear evidence in the public domain suggesting criminal conduct on the part of its two leading figures, Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu, and the party is now openly associated with the ANC faction that aims to restore the kleptocracy. The fact that the evidence of criminal conduct that is in the public domain amounts, in the case of the Limpopo tenders and the VBS scandal, to a political elite stealing from the poor creates a grave crisis of credibility for the EFF.

The end result of all this mess is that while state institutions are slowly being repaired, and while investigative journalism continues to thrive on new platforms, our political institutions – in the form of the ruling party and the two largest opposition parties – are all in crisis. We will not be able to secure the process of reform that is currently underway if we cannot build credible political institutions. This is the next frontier in the long, slow and often exhausting fight to secure our future. DM

Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.

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