Opinionista Omphemetse S Sibanda 12 February 2021

Missing from Sona 2021: How to address state accountability and the respect for the law

We will never win the fight against corruption if there is no respect for the rule of law and the judiciary.

Dear Mr President,

Thank you for your State of the Nation Address (Sona) of 2021. It could not have come at a worse time for your fragile leadership, both in government and in the ANC, when there are many threats to our constitutional democracy, justice and the rule of law. 

One should not forget that the Sona took place on February 11, as we marked the 31st anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Poignantly, you specifically mention the release of Mandela. 

I am not going to second-guess why you chose February 11 for your speech – but perhaps you subtly wanted to remind conscientious public representatives to follow Mandela’s example of servant leadership, selflessness and dedication in his relentless commitment to creating a better life for all who live in South Africa. Also, to remind South Africans of our resilience through all hardships and keeping our shape through the different seasons, like the fynbos that you referred to.

Before your speech, several commentators asked one critical question: What he gonna promise us this time? 

Already, some economists have expressed disappointment at you and decried that you have not lived up to the promises you made in your 2020 Sona (read and listen here). Others were bold enough to tell the nation to expect more empty promises and lip service from you (read here).

Azwimpheleli Langalanga recently wrote in Daily Maverick that Sonasremain talk shops because of their lack of impact on the lives of ordinary South Africans (read here).” Concerns over the government’s ability to fulfil its Sona promises have been expressed, some of these concerns regarding your earliest speeches, such as the 2019 promises about gender-based violence (see here).

Having said that, I would like to appraise your speech tonight by starting on a positive note. The nature and tone of your conversation with the public was riveting, and you pressed some important buttons to build public support, or rather you resuscitated some of the significant public support that you had when you assumed office as the president of the republic. You have, as always, delivered a message of hope to the nation. By and large, you whetted my appetite on some key issues, including instilling accountability in government, dismantling corruption and State Capture, and supporting corrective processes such as the Zondo Commission.

On corruption, you stated as one of four priorities actions to fight corruption and strengthen institutions that have been weakened. I will focus on combating corruption as this is one of my academic areas of interest. 

For three decades since the release of Mandela from Victor Verster Prison, we, the people of South Africa, have been victims of dispossession through corruption and corrupt practices. Several reports on corruption, maladministration and the “who cares?” attitude of our elected officials underscore the backwater of democracy that we have come to be. Sadly, our Madiba-period record as the most successful emerging democracy in Africa is at best chequered.

I must applaud you, Mr President, for acknowledging that to fight corruption we must strengthen our institutions. 

“Building strong institutions is a central challenge of development and is key to controlling corruption. Well-functioning public management systems, accountable organizations, a strong legal framework, an independent judiciary, and a vigilant civil society protect a country against corruption. Institutional strengthening is thus expected to form a key part of country anti-corruption strategies.” 

This is not my observation, but that of the World Bank Group. The role or centrality of some of the state institutions in corruption and State Capture is common knowledge. 

For example, in 2020 the Zondo Commission heard that the ANC top six were aware of the rot and corruption happening at Prasa, one of South Africa’s key state-owned entities (watch here). Yet the responsible parliamentary oversight committee seems to have been content with doing little when scavengers like Bosasa sucked the state coffers dry (read here).

There have also been reports and claims of the State Security Agency (SSA) having no ounce of intelligence to decipher the illegality of participating in corrupt activities and “political skulduggery”, as Ferial Haffajee puts it (read here). I do not want to say much about revelations of corruption at Eskom (watch here), as the state-owned power utility might have been in the dark when corruption was taking place from Megawatt Park to Saxonwold. It is interesting to know how these failing institutions and others will be strengthened. Whatever you do, please do not pour more of the taxpayers’ money into these corrupt institutions because you will be playing into their pilfering hands. 

I must hasten to argue that you had a few critical hits and misses. You correctly acknowledged that the Zondo Commission had laid bare corruption in our society. You also noted that ‘testimony at the commission has shown how the criminal justice system was compromised and weakened’. 

“Critical leadership positions have been filled with capable, experienced and trustworthy professionals,” you said. Let us hope that these individuals were not hand-picked to act as surrogates for “in the shadows” corrupt government officials and public figures

I must hasten to argue that you had a few critical hits and misses. You correctly acknowledged that the Zondo Commission had laid bare corruption in our society. You also noted that “testimony at the commission has shown how the criminal justice system was compromised and weakened”. 

Disappointing for me, besides repeating many of your priority actions on corruption in terms of your 2020 Sona, was not declaring support for and confidence in the Zondo Commission. I expected a clear admonition of conduct exhibited by people like the ANC’s Deputy Secretary-General, Jessie Duarte – of course, I did not expect you to name her in your speech – who has attacked the commission and rubbished the work of the commission as an “onslaught on the people” (read here) to the astonishment of right-thinking South Africans (read here, here, and here).

These are the people who will not think twice about having our criminal justice system “weakened and compromised”, to use your words. South Africa is replete with scandals, which do not only begin with allegations of State Capture and corruption amplified at the Zondo Commission. Mavericks such as Duarte should not be allowed to run amok. 

Interestingly, Duarte quotes the Nigerian novelist and poet Ben Okri: “There is no greater sorcery than poetry, than the imagination of the storyteller.” Okri goes on to say that “humanity without scepticism, without knowledge, is dangerous”. Equally important for Duarte to note is that storytellers need not be fearful and tame for the sake of protecting party interest. 

“Storytellers ought not to be too tame. They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society. They are best in disguise. If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys,” writes Okri.

Related to fighting corruption and strengthening our institutions is enforcing accountability. It is mind-boggling that public figures like Duarte embark on political deceit and covetousness to deflect attention from the overt and covert failure of our government’s accountability. They would rather attack the Zondo Commission, which, like the Fitzgerald Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct (Queensland, Australia) is expected to craft for us a report that will be a “blueprint for accountability” in South Africa. I observed that accountability was not a direct focus of your very broad speech. 

Mr President, you may have meant well in your speech, but not saying anything about tangible interventions to foster accountability and respect of the law from those in your government is concerning. Unfortunately, the South African story now has a familiar ring to many Africans: immunity from accountability and lack of oversight; hurling of threats, insults, political rhetoric and populism when accountability is demanded; bankrupt state institutions and Presidential State-Owned Enterprises (PSOEs); daylight corruption and theft of state resources; politicians masquerading as Hollywood personalities; law enforcement agencies operating as private militias on reconnaissance missions for select politicians, according to revelations at the Zondo Commission (read here and here). 

On the other hand, many South African children are dying of thirst and hunger (read here), dying because of derelict infrastructure (read here), and continue to suffer from exploitation and all forms of inequalities. Gender-based violence continues unabated, with some promises of intervention to end the scourge remaining unfulfilled to date. I did not hear you divulge concrete plans to address truly meaningful accountability systems in our government.

Mr President, we will never win the fight against corruption if there is no respect for the rule of law and the judiciary. I, therefore, expected you to come out strong in your support of the judiciary against growing attacks, and to buttress the importance of the respect of justice, law and order. The constitutional rupture or its undercurrent must jolt you to take a principled stance and to declare: Not under my watch

Yet, your ANC-led government has allowed some rogue figures to drive a narrative aimed at transforming courts into highly interventionist political actors on behalf of these individuals. Asked about the stance of former president Zuma to defy the Constitutional Court order, you seemed to have taken an approach suggesting that South Africans are just overreacting. I do not know how to read this response, Mr President. Should we consider this as your careful and portentous intervention, or just plain supine surrender to the fact that the lawless faction of society has won?  

One cannot wait for the day when you publicly chastise one of the “big shots” in your own political party as part of your efforts to improve standards of governance and rule of law in South Africa.

Mr President, take a moment and reflect on the lyrics of the song Promises by the late famed South African singer Brenda Fassie. If you do not fulfil in both words and actions your Sona promises, ask yourself if Fassie was not talking to you. In particular, the following words:

Standing back I can’t believe how you’ve led me on
And judging by the things you say
There’s gotta be something wrong
What you telling me that for you don’t mean it
What you telling me that for I don’t believe it
Your promises have never been anything you made them seem
So what you gonna promise me this time
You’re telling lies so plain to see, you’re trying to make a fool of me

And the above brings me to the most worrying issues of all, trust deficit. Fulfilling the promises you made at the 2021 Sona is the only way to stop the plummeting of public trust in your government and leadership. South Africa and its government are both institutions. Just read what Harvard Professor Tarun Khanna in his book, Trust: Creating the Foundation for Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries, said about trusted institutions. They are important in moving society forward, and mistrust of institutions comes with an undesirable consequence, including citizens complying with laws and regulations less than expected.

Mr President, do not wait any longer: Act and act fast! You will agree with the people of South Africa that the South African government has not delivered the goods. Also, that our country is now more vulnerable to backsliding into the animal farm, and the rating agencies are becoming moody. DM 

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All Comments 6

  • Excellent article but the shortfalls and failings of the government and it’s cronies would take volumes.
    Members of the so called “leadership” have been around for decades feeding at the trough.
    They won’t be the solution.

  • “Mavericks such as Duarte should not be allowed to run amok.” Neither the anc nor their president has the b0lls to do anything to stop this, as you say: “One cannot wait for the day when you publicly chastise one of the “big shots” in your own political party as part of your efforts to improve standards of governance and rule of law in South Africa.”

  • Great article and absolutely spot on. I was absolutely gobsmacked when the President said that the totally odious and obnoxious Zuma must be given time to reflect on whether to appear at the Zondo Commission, especially after the Concourt ruling. As if Joe Citizen has that option!!!! It is precisely this type of cowardly and weak pussy-footing that gives space to degenerates like Zuma and his ilk instead of standing firm and on the law and the Constitution!!!!

  • Excellent article – perhaps a bit subtle even for our President? As for our Cabinet Ministers perhaps they could care less? Sadly, in our case, the well known comment about Eliot Ness and his crime fighting ‘Untouchables’ refers more to the perpetrators than to our crime fighting resources.

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