The elections and the future of South African politics - will there be real democracy or just another election farce? - Publications

The elections and the future of South African politics - will there be real democracy or just another election farce?

ANC presidential candidate Jacob Zuma. Photo by David Harrison

April 7, 2009
By Saliem Fakir
By Saliem Fakir

South Africa faces the epic struggle of achieving a just and democratic society. Its beginnings were sketched out in 1994. And, although the promise exists, it has gone through rounds of betrayal and hope in the last fifteen years.

As anticipated, on Monday 6th April the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) dropped all charges against Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, who will now be able to take up the highest post in the land without fear of the sword of Damocles.

From the start, the manner by which Zuma’s case has been dealt with – from his dismissal, to his indictment, the withdrawal of charges against him and the reinstatement of the NPA’s right to prosecute – gave a window into the workings of power in South Africa. It was a lesson on how the perception of right and wrong depends on which side you sit.

There has been lots of interference from both sides – that is – Zuma’s and Mbeki’s. The latest in the Zuma-Mbeki saga just points to the potential demise of South African politics: becoming less about the interests of citizens than about men utilising state resources and institutions to settle scores.

If, Mbeki had not interfered, the thinking goes, then Zuma and his camp may not have mounted such a concerted assault on the judiciary and led the successful charge to disband elite crime fighting unit the Scorpions. It seems the one has justified the means to an end of the other.

There are clearly no Chinese Walls when it comes to high stakes, and political pressure exerted by the executive has all the chances of compelling the legislature and judiciary to do its bidding. When it comes to the question of power, there are no boundaries – everything is fair game. 

The problem is that if we try to find angles – we are likely to find none or very few. Both political and private power show concerning signs of deprivation and excess. It seems to be a universal challenge for democracies around the world.

There is nothing peculiarly African about the problem of mutually corrupting influences when political and business interests converge or have to meet each other.

We have seen wanton abuse of power when ‘public’ and private interests become one and the same thing.

The asymmetry between citizens, their vote and those in power means that regardless of state lines, we seem to receive the same brash treatment. In South Africa as elsewhere there is the nervous waving of the ballot card: Who does one hand the key of power to? Who will restore trust in the system? Who could save our democracy?

This in summary is what South Africa’s 2009 election is about: trust and the pursuit of limitations on the monopoly of power. Many parties are jockeying to reduce the dominance of the ANC, or, in some provinces, completely displace it and seize its command.

Everybody that is not ANC – including its former members, those who backed some of the ANC’s controversial policies and turned a blind eye to the infestation of corruption – are now parading their credentials hoping to re-emerge as political saints.

The reincarnation of ex-ANC stalwarts in the form of the Congress of the People (COPE) seems to have energised election campaigning – but whether COPE will transform our politics is still to be seen. While it is certain that they will stiffen the competition and capture some of the ANC’s votes, it is not yet clear whether they will constitute a worthy opposition. Only time will tell.

Regardless of the final score, South Africans are certain that Zuma will be president, even if the ANC does not win its two-thirds majority. It is a fact to which we have resigned ourselves.

People are asking what then? Will he be what former British Minister of State Anthony Nelson described as a ‘doughty champion of human and civil rights?’ 

Some commentators are already throwing aspersions to the contrary. Discussions of Zuma’s ‘secret life’ as the ANC’s intelligence chief in exile and his alleged role in the killing of Thami Zulu – a promising ANC commander in the ANC’s military wing – a doing the rounds.  

But is our situation with Zuma any different from elsewhere? Are there not replications of this frivolity of power elsewhere in the world that teach us that we should not only put trust in the ballot box, but find ways to expand the scope and range of citizens’ power beyond its narrow remit?

Let’s take the example of Berlusconi in Italy because there are so many parallels with Zuma.
Most recently in the London Review of Books (29 February 2009) Perry Anderson could well have been describing South Africa, but he was writing about Italy, portraying  Berlusconi as having ‘embodied a conflict of interests felt to be intolerable in other democracies, controlling at once a private empire and public power, each at the service of the other’. 

Andersen points out that Berlusconi interchanged politics and business so regularly that his one of the primary aims of his ascent to power was to protect himself from prosecution.

When he first came into power he hastily passed three laws: to block evidence of illegal transactions abroad, the de-criminilisation of the falsification of accounts, and allowing defendants to change judges by changing the jurisdiction. In 2008, when Berlusconi was re-elected, he set out to complete unfinished business.

Within hundred days of his election, Berlusconi rushed through a bill for his immunity from prosecution. Berlusconi also bullied the equivalent of the NPA in Italy and cut their budget so as to reduce their investigative capacity.

As Andersen concluded: ‘After protecting his person, came protecting his empire’ – and if asked why he did it, Berlusconi would reply, like Clinton once did: ‘Because I can’.  And, the same can be said about Zuma – both him and the ANC can. They have proven they can. When they are in power they can do as they please.

But there are differences between Zuma and Berlusconi.

Zuma looks like third rate amateur, a picaninny, compared to Berlusconi. For one Zuma is penniless and is always the beneficiary of somebody else’s ‘gifts’ – his court battle is financed by the State and friends.

Zuma owns no business empire, he is dependent on the ANC and the Alliance to see himself into power, and his corruption charges seem to pale against his own colleague Carl Niehaus.

Zuma, at least, is only a suspect of corruption. Niehaus, by comparison, has admitted to his crimes – which included forging the signatures of ANC colleagues. 

Zuma may well be a victim of a large conspiracy that goes back to the arms deal. 

If anything, Zuma was merely a proxy to a business empire that Schabir Shaik was busy building. Zuma’s weakness was that he spent more than he could afford, while Shaik settled the accounts without question – allowing him to extract as many favours as he could from Zuma. Zuma, as court papers revealed, ran a tab of just over R4.2 million (approximately Euro 350 000) on Shaik’s account.

What the Zuma saga potentially shares with the story of Berlusconi is how a country’s or party’s entire focus can be subverted to assisting an individual to evade the law. It misdirects state energy into vexatious pursuits.

This redirection of state focus to the protection of a single person from the law and the settling of scores can be seen in the way cell-phone calls were secretly intercepted and taped by intelligence agencies between Mbeki, Bulelani Ngcuka (former director of public persecutions) and Leonard McCarthy (his deputy and head of the Scorpions) and others.

The state’s entire security apparatus has been focused on a feud involving two men rather than the ensuring the proper management and the security of its citizens. The bleeding and bloodletting within the establishment is throughout the body politic and state institutions. It involves the legislature, judiciary and the executive.

This includes the ongoing purges of ‘Mbekites’ and the troubling saga of reigning in the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in favour of the interests of the Zuma camp; especially its board whose members were appointed by Mbeki.

A key state resource whose independence had for long been contested, it was not long before the broadcaster also fell to an internecine struggle for control by different ANC factions. 

In order to wrest control of this powerful media from the ‘Mbekites’, the post-Polokwane and pro-Zuma parliament amended the Broadcasting Act giving itself right to remove the Board. The Act is still to be signed by the care-taker president Kgalema Motlanthe.

This dispute has tarnished the SABC and has disrupted its functioning and provision of public services.  The question of the SABC will now only be resolved after the election as the ANC does not want to be distracted from its campaigning.

Another saga of concern is that of prominent judge John Hlophe. Judge President of the Western Cape, Hlophe is the subject of a Judicial Services Commission hearing. He is accused of breaking the code of impartiality when he allegedly tried to influence two Constitutional Court judges presiding over matters related to Zuma’s trial to conclude in Zuma’s favour.

He seems to have taken things into his own hands. He was no doubt trying to curry favour with Zuma – presumably seeking for himself a future in the post of the highest judge in the land.

What we can learn from all of this is that voting people into power in itself does not translate to moral politics. Our country may well continue to go on the way it has for the 300 odd years of colonialism and apartheid – in which both private and public powers conspired to determine the fate of citizens.

The structure and rules of this game have not changed – just the colour of the characters and their names. There has never been a citizens’ revolution nor popular democracy in South Africa – power has been managed on citizens’ behalf through various institutions and agencies. Voting is the only occasional form of direct participation – or is it?

The political establishment have always understood this, and they have always had the resources to manipulate outcomes. They see no threat from voters – the ballot becomes ‘the farce that everyone has to perform’, as French poet Rimbaud once wrote about life in general.

Politics will be yet another theatre in which both saints and dubious characters will seek to outshine each other.

What we shouldn’t fail to understand is that a political system is not an outcome of the vote alone but the relation of power between different social forces and classes within that system.

Strong countervailing forces are always necessary to bring about a moral and just order. It won’t come through the party political machinery and ballot box alone. We have seen the world over, time and again, that voters always stand to be betrayed.

The voters will vote, leave and then come back in five years to meet yet another campaign trail passing through their village.

And, maybe, just maybe, some things will have changed.

Saliem Fakir is the Head of the Living Planet Unit at the World Wildlife Fund South Africa. The Unit’s work is focused on identifying ways to manage a transition to a low-carbon economy. Saliem Fakir was previously (2007-2008) a senior lecturer at the Department of Public Administration and Planning and associate Director for the Center for Renewable and Sustainable Energy at the University of Stellenbosch. Saliem previously worked for Lereko Energy (Pty) Ltd an investment company focusing on project development and financial arrangements for renewable energy, biofuels, waste and water sectors. He also served as Director of the World Conservation Union South Africa (IUCN-SA) office for 8 years. Saliem’s qualifications are: B.Sc Honours molecular biology (WITS), Masters’ in Environmental Science, Wye College London, and he did a senior executive management course at Harvard University in 2000.

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