Defend Truth


Some sobering thoughts and a fable about expectations, democracy and the law


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Legal systems of democratic societies do not always produce the right, or the most desired, fair or just outcomes. The same legal system that keeps some villains in prisons, can set others free. The law, such as it is, can also be the cruellest of ironies.

I have been wandering aimlessly around the idea of democracy and the tedium of democratic and legal processes. The old Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, Ace Magashule, Jimmy Manyi, Carl Niehaus and, of course, Julius Malema more than a decade ago, (even Jacob Zuma), share the distinction of having been kicked out of the offices they held by the slow grind of democracy, justice and law, such as it is or was… democracy is working, but in super-slow motion, and not always according to prevailing fashions or trends.

To be clear, there is no better system of governance. We have to remember nonetheless, that that same democracy brought the following people into the highest offices: each one of Donald Trump (US), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Jacob Zuma, Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines) was elected in democratic countries and, believe it or not, Nazism took root in the democratic Weimar Republic.

Marked as it was by political upheavals and economic hardship, with new social freedoms and remarkably vibrant artistic movements, Weimar also “set the stage for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power”. It was also during Weimar when anti-semitism gained momentum. (Some of us continue to search for likely causes of Weimar’s failures. The issue remains far from settled given, probably, the horrors that followed. In general, causation is difficult to pin down.)

The point here is that democracy may bring people into positions of power, but you never can tell what they will do once in office. They too, once elected, may be surprised by what they find in their new positions of power. See the fable, below. In other words, democracy is necessary, but insufficient in the same way that ethics is necessary, but we should probably temper our expectations.

One comparative study by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) concluded that Trump was “not an autocrat [but] behaved undemocratically”. Levitsky and Ziblatt pointed out (in 2018) that Trump’s attacks on the judicial system and the media, notably public criticism of oppositional judges and independent investigator Robert Mueller, were similar to actions taken by Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro against a prosecutor who attempted to investigate him. Given the timing, they also compared Trump’s actions to those of Vladimir Putin.

Funny, not funny, how things work out.

Legal systems of democratic societies do not always produce the right, or the most desired, fair or just outcomes. The same legal system that keeps some villains in prisons, can set others free. The law, such as it is, can also be the cruellest of ironies… for instance, Rudolph Giuliani, once the celebrated champion of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act (Rico) in his fight against organised crime in the US, today faces charges and likely prosecution under the same act. So much for justice, fairness, the law, democracy.

You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes…

For reasons almost entirely of their own making, the political movement that has governed the country for the past three decades or so, fails in almost every empirical (and other, mind you) test of governance. These issues are in the pigments and dyes of the print media, and in the pixels and scratchings of everything online or broadcast. It defies all expectations.

Yet, we wonder what it is that can be salvaged from it all. There is a lot, and there is very little. Let’s try, briefly and let slip the dogs of insult and incredulity…

Imagine this. (What follows is imaginative – a total fabrication, a fable). Over the first month of his presidency, Cyril Ramaphosa holds a series of meetings. In several of these meetings, he is presented with information. He does not bang his fist on the table. In a polite, but pointed, tone, he tells someone: “Don’t tell me about what you are going to do, or what you think should be done. Tell me what you have done, what you have achieved and provide me with evidence”. Having held a meeting, or scheduling a meeting, or even establishing a committee … these are not achievements, they’re aspirations (my words and conclusions).

Over the first few months, Ramaphosa walks around with his head bowed. He cannot believe his luck. For so long he assumed that the president’s office was where power was located, and as soon as he stepped into the office, he saw how power, influence, trust, competence… (administration, governance, public service etc) were all very thinly dusted across state institutions.

He tells me in a phone call yesterday (this is a fabrication), that since that first day, “I have felt a bit like the little helicopter on Mars… All I am able to do is make short flights over a barren landscape. These short flights in the thin Martian atmosphere are almost never controlled from Earth. I may be significant, probably important in our democratic era, but like the Martian helicopter I weigh less than two kilogrammes.”

He sounds exasperated. I’m thinking Luthuli House. You can’t always get what you want… I say goodbye. This is where democracy has brought us, and it can be unsightly. We only think we know what democracy will bring, but as Ramaphosa learned (in this fictional tale) is that things are never what they seem to be, or what we expect. There’s a moral somewhere in that fable.

Back to reality

I think about the recent dismissal of Mkhwebane. It took some time, and a lot of money, but she has been fired. Along with people like Magashule or Niehaus, the law (I’m not sure precisely which laws) has sent them out to pasture. They may, of course, bounce back, but the point is that democracy and the law forced them out (finally) after weeks and months, and in the case of Mkhwebane, a lot of money. These all add up to the cost and unpredictability of democracy.

It may be the best system of governance, but there are times when belief, conviction and carrying on requires repeated suspension of patience and disbelief — and also careful consideration of all the facts. Several years ago, in London (late 1997) someone complained to me that legislation was taking a long time to get through Parliament, and that that was because of the ANC.

I sat him down, a former journalist colleague from the old Nasionale Pers stable, and asked if he had considered the differences between the old National Party driving legislation through Parliament, and the new dispensation which insisted on public hearings, committees and the arduous process of seeking consensus… I’m not sure I was entirely correct. I had left journalism by then and was back at university.

Very many people in South Africa today would love to see Jacob Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa, or Markus Jooste (not to mention Donald Trump) in prison overalls. The problem is that as much as we would like to see someone like Trump imprisoned, the law and democratic processes have to run their course. Of course, these processes will be manipulated, abused or exploited — heck, most people judged Mkhwebane, Trump, Jooste, Ramaphosa a couple of years ago — but until the courts have found any of these people guilty, we are stuck with them.

Selective democracy?

Democracy and the law work, when we accept and “allow” it, or we don’t let our personal biases get in the way. One of the larger divisions in South Africa (most recently) is among people who would, for instance, believe that the Lady R issue is settled, that the government is guilty of sending military aid to Russia (never mind the evidence or legal findings), while others believe it is perfectly in order for the ruling alliance to support Russia’s in its war against the Ukrainian people.

The first group sit around all day, as it were, waiting for signs that the government is doing something they don’t like — and finally get a chance to express their disgust. And don’t touch the American ambassador because, you know, we will “lose the West”. Perception, bias and prejudice all trump the law and even truth.

Take the case of Trump. While legal processes are underway, there are very many people in the US who would insist that he has done nothing wrong, and even if he had, they would be cool with it.

Extrapolated back to South Africa. Ramaphosa is either guilty (never mind legal findings), or he has done nothing wrong (because he cannot possibly do wrong). In most of these cases, given that South Africa and the US are democracies, and that legal processes tend to grind along slowly, most people can be forgiven for being impatient — or even conspiratorial.

Either way, democratic processes and the law, grinding along as slowly as they do, will determine the outcomes. It took months to get rid of Magashule, Malema and Niehaus, and for Manyi to be flushed out of the system. None of this prevented their reincarnation.

It took many more months for Mkhwebane to (finally) be suspended. We should probably not be surprised if she shows up again somewhere. That’s democracy. Unless there are specific laws that prevent her from political participation, Mkhwebane will enjoy all the (legal) rights as you and me, my friend.

Now where did I put… DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Denise Smit says:

    Mkwebane will join the EFF/radical ANC faction. Not sure if they become the rulers it will be democratically. It will be a combination of Maduro, Hitler, and Putin tactics with a lot or matches used by the fighters. Denise Smit

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    Fabulous narration, Ismail. A wonderful precis of the dilemmas that lurk beneath the surface of a biased-based perception among all of us. The macinations of politics in ‘upholding’ democracy are truly mind-boggling but ultimately, unavoidably revert to ego and the sheer desperation in the protection thereof.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Well Mr Lagardien, I never suspected you had a penchant for the lyrics of Jagger & Richards, or Lennon & McCartney for that matter.

    I enjoyed your “conversation” with El Squirrel. One small point of distinction – law making is a democratic process. Law enforcement is an administrative process. We should not confuse the two – Mkhwebane and Trump (not to mention Shaky Jake and a litany of others)) enjoy luxuriously lengthy legal processes not because of any shortcomings of democracy, but because they enjoy political patrimony and shelter from wholly dishonest and corruption riddled politicians.

    Mkhwebane committed blatant acts of perjury in her first months of office in 2017 that immediately disqualified her from the PP office. Yet she wasn’t fired – which she should have been. But she wasn’t appointed as a PP – Shaky Jake gave her a bucket of white wash and a very wide brush. The very expensive and lengthy process to get rid of her was not a function of the democratic process, it was if anything a lack of democratic process that enabled her to be that dangling drol on the wolkombers.

  • Libby De Villiers says:

    Why have so many people died in so many struggles and revolutions to get rid of monarchs and dictators for the sake of a vote that doesn’t mean a thing?
    The moment these people come into office they become royalty with bodyguards and protocols and red carpets. All of a sudden the are VIP’s.
    If we are all equal and free and have the same human rights in a democratic structure, why do some people go hungry while others are vip’s?
    We will only have truly functioning democracies when government workers work and get fired by the people the moment they put a foot wrong. The luxuries, the perks, the pomp and ceremony and freebees must go. We need to have intelligent, educated specialist professionals to do the work for decent salaries.
    It is not a democracy if a president or minister can withhold information from the people when it suits them. Nor can they hang out with psychopathic dictators without the people they represent having a say.
    Ours is not a democracy and most definitely not one worth fighting for.

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