The handling of a variety of recent controversies in South Africa by the African National Congress-led government has given rise to the notion on many public forums that democracy here is on the ropes.
Since he first came to power in 2009, questions around whether South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma is fit to oversee a constitutional democracy have swirled endlessly, not least because he faced 783 charges of corruption during the run-up to the election that year.
Those charges were dropped by the National Prosecution Authority just weeks before he was inaugurated as president because of alleged political influence in their preparation and delivery, but the scandals have kept coming as the years have passed.
However, it seems the scale and scope of these political calamities has reached new heights since the beginning of the year.
Over the past few months, the Zuma administration has been accused of wilfully undermining and ignoring the constitution, the document upon which South Africa’s fledgling democracy is built, on two separate occasions.
For instance, take the recommendations contained in the public protector’s report on the 246 million rand (€18 million) upgrades to the president’s home in rural Nklandla, which maintained he should repay a “reasonable percentage” for any improvements not related to security.
Rather than adhere to the findings of an institution established by the constitution, Zuma has ignored them. Instead, he accepted the findings contained in a report by the police minister he recently appointed, which stated he is not liable for any of the upgrades, which include a swimming pool, cattle enclosure and visitors’ centre.
Finger to judiciary
Respected columnist and author Max du Preez wrote recently that in facilitating the departure from the country of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir on June 15th in defiance of an order by the high court, the Zuma administration crossed the rubicon and “unashamedly showed a thick middle finger to the judiciary and thus the constitution”.
Bashir had been attending an African Union summit in Johannesburg when a court application was lodged to have him arrested and sent to the International Criminal Court to face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
“It is the closest post-apartheid South Africa has come to that much-talked-about concept of a constitutional crisis,” warned du Preez. “Our stability and democracy were built on the rule of law and the supremacy of the constitution. Weaken those pillars and our country could start crumbling.”
In addition, only last week Zuma was accused of massaging the findings of the Farlim Commission relating to former police minister Nathi Mthethwa, and his involvement in the 2012 Marikana massacre, which saw the police shoot dead 34 striking miners in a few minutes of sustained gunfire.
“The counsel for injured and arrested persons alleged that Mr Mthethwa was the cause of the Marikana massacre and that he must be held accountable for the death of 34 miners,” Zuma said in a live, televised address. “The commission found that the executive played no role in the decision of the police to implement the tactical option . . . which led to the deaths of the 34 persons.”
In reality the commission said in its report that it was “unable . . . to find positively in minister Mthethwa’s favour”, which leaves serious questions about the role of cabinet in the decision that led to the shooting being sanctioned.
While all of these situations should be a serious cause for concern for South Africans, do they collectively equate to the beginning of the end of South Africa’s democracy?
When considering this, it should not be forgotten that South Africa has held five successful democratic elections since 1994 and Zuma, its elected leader, is held to account by independent judges, a tenacious media and a vocal parliament.
Neither are the administration’s actions being ignored by the public or civil society. Opinion polls across the board show that the ANC vote is in steady decline, and Zuma’s popularity is at its lowest ebb since he first came to power. This demise in popularity is reflected in election results which suggest the ruling party’s majority in parliament will come under threat within 10 years.
South African democracy has indeed been left with a bloody nose, but claims of its irreversible demise are surely premature.
That said, the concern should be that before Zuma’s administration comes to an end in 2019 it may try to defy the judiciary and constitution on more serious matters. These might include the court order the opposition Democratic Alliance party is seeking to have the 783 criminal charges reinstated against the president.