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Zondo Commission reports go to the heart of political p...

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Zondo Commission reports go to the heart of political power in democratic South Africa


Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.

Although legal in nature, the collection of reports flowing from the Zondo Commission constitutes one of the most important political texts written about South Africa’s constitutional democracy. Admittedly, this was not the explicit intention of the reports. However, the reports go to the heart of the country’s political dynamics that facilitated and sustained State Capture.

As the political dust settles after the release of the final Commission of Inquiry into State Capture (Zondo Commission) instalments, the author’s disquiet about the condition of South Africa’s democracy crystallises in the subtext of the reports. 

In the main, the Zondo Commission represents a legal process by which State Capture allegations were tested. 

The multiple reports flowing from the Commission make recommendations for further legal action to be taken against identified parties, and which laws are to be amended or introduced. 

That is the literal, surface reading of the reports.

On the other side of the coin, though, the entire collection of Zondo Commission reports simultaneously serves as one of the most important political texts written about the state of the country and its institutions post-democracy. 

Although not intended, and not referred to explicitly as such in the inquiry’s terms of reference, the Zondo Commission reports do constitute an assessment of South Africa’s centre of political power, the exercise of political power, the symbols of political power and the performance of political power. 

Most importantly, the reports inadvertently underscore the existence of a power vacuum which rendered the country vulnerable to the sort of political excesses that resulted in the institutionalisation of capture. 

Some experts look to Luthuli House, the headquarters of the African National Congress (ANC), as South Africa’s centre of power, while others will point to the Union Buildings, the executive seat of power. 

The former represents a party-centric view of power and the latter espouses a statist understanding of power.  

In the context of the commission’s reports, the centre of power in South Africa folded, be it within the party environment or in the state machinery. 

When the centre does not hold in either of those two realms, that opens the floodgates for the subversion of the exercise of political power.  

Evidence given before the commission shows that a high political and professional price was paid by many when they outlined the anomalies taking place during the decade of debacles. 

The outlining of deviations from legitimate and recognised party norms and state conventions, in turn, revealed the exercise of political power which was at odds with what had been previously allowed and thought acceptable. 

The political vacuum facilitated, and sustained, the prolonged misuse of the exercise of political power – be it vested in the party or within the state. 

A malfunctioning centre of power in the party or the state creates conducive conditions for the highest offices in either domain to be used as vehicles for individuals’ exploits and benefit. 

The dichotomy is that the centre of power in the party and the state maintained the illusion of control and normality, while the backroom reality pointed to the contrary. 

That, in part, explains how State Capture happened and why it was such a successful enterprise for its architects.   

In other words, the centre of power – although crumbling – in the party and within the state became a convenient smokescreen for misapplication when exercising political power. 

Taken together, the creaking centre of power and the misuse of the exercise of political power reinforced and deepened the political vacuum. Neither the party nor the state could close the growing schism between the centre of power and the exercise of political power.               

Although the ANC’s electoral dominance is waning, it remains at the helm of the country’s symbols of political power: Parliament and Presidency, taken to represent the executive – two of the three arms of the state. 

As stated above, neither the centre of power in the party nor state held. This also played out in Parliament, where the shortcomings of the party and the executive were not only accommodated but also legitimated. 

The actions of Parliament during the decade of decline demonstrate that the institution conflated its mandate with that of the party and the head of state. 

It bears repeating that Parliament thwarted many attempts to hold the executive and the heads of state-owned enterprises to account. That undermined Parliament both as an institution of democracy and as a symbol of political power. 

The observations made about Parliament in the final Zondo Commission reports are worth further reading and studying. 

Instead of acting as a standalone symbol of political power, Parliament was reduced to the level of party considerations and executive exploits. 

That is quite problematic for a constitutional democracy such as South Africa, whose heads of Chapter 9 institutions are appointed through parliamentary procedures.

It could then be argued that an unsteady centre of power – coupled with the exploitative exercise of power and symbols of political power acting as blunt instruments of the party and the executive – correlates with a performance of political power that is out of step with the desires and aspirations of the polity. BM/DM


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  • The Zondo report goes to the heart of the deep rot in the governing party. It’s so deep one has to wonder if it can ever change. There must surely be some good people in government. But they have to toe the party line to keep their jobs and stay safe. It must be terrible to have to turn a blind eye when you know that what’s going on isn’t right. I feel for those people.

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