What is it that we fear?

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“Defend our democracy! Defend our Constitution!” These are the slogans of a new civil society campaign. After the Save South Africa and #ZumaMustFall campaigns, is this yet another single issue campaign – to free us of the Zuma legacy of state capture, cronyism, nepotism and corruption? Launched on 18 March by several well-known former “struggle” individuals and initially signed by a motley group of some 300+ individuals and organisations, the campaign statement views the multiple attempts by the former president, Jacob Zuma, and his supporters to evade prosecution for inter alia corruption as:

[A] threat to our constitutional democracy (which) goes beyond that posed by an individual. It illustrates how that individual embodies a political culture fundamentally antithetical to democracy: the cult of personality, rule by factional dictate, nepotism and totalitarianism in a securitised state.1

The allusions are crystal clear to those who have witnessed despots and dictators riding roughshod over the rights and needs of their respective peoples, whether on the African continent or elsewhere. The statement identifies those in support of Jacob Zuma as anti-democratic forces being mobilised to create chaos and undermine our democracy and the Constitution. Accompanied by a petition which calls on citizens to resist these forces within their means, the campaign has since garnered 4000+ signatures.

To those observing Jacob Zuma’s refusal to appear before the Zondo Commission, it is obvious that this is much more than intransigence. His defiance of a Constitutional Court order to do so, underscores what the South African Council of Churches (SACC) stated on 28 February:

Things have now reached a stage where we are duty-bound to call (Jacob Zuma’s) action and that of his supporters for what it is, an option for the destabilisation of the country.

This appears to be part of a broader trend that is playing out in internal ANC politics, where justifications for this behaviour have to be politically sustained. We stand to warn the governing party that South Africans will not stand for and tolerate destabilisation and chaos from any quarter, and certainly not from the ranks of a party charged by the Constitution with the responsibility for public order.

The trust of South Africans given at elections is sacred, and we need the African National Congress in government to reassure South Africa that, as a party, they wholeheartedly support and defend the Constitution and its institutions, including the judiciary that has repeatedly been attacked publicly without evidence of wrongdoing adduced. These are the makings of institutional destabilisation.2

That the governing party – divided and polarised within itself – has, to date, addressed the matter with a forked tongue, confirms what South Africans have known for years, namely that there are pro- and anti-Zuma factions within the ANC; that there are those who abide by the law and those who are willing to flout it; that there are those who have benefitted from state capture and, as alleged in this new political campaign, are utilising these funds to undermine and destabilise the state and its organs – just as there is a shrinking minority within the former liberation movement willing and able to resist these forces.

The question is, however: why this campaign, statement and petition (only) now? Any right-minded and somewhat politically aware citizen – and one who has read our Constitution – would be aware that the governing party has been systemically and systematically eroding the core principles of the Constitution stealthily for several years, and this at all tiers of governance. The hundreds of service delivery protests with evidence of widespread systematic theft of public funds for personal gain at district and municipal levels are evident almost everywhere in dysfunctional local government administrations, as reported by the auditor-general annually – without any consequences for the perpetrators! This, while there has been the daily stench of millions of cubic metres of raw sewage flowing freely through neighbourhoods and backyards and into rivers for years, for example, on the East Rand; and communities in rural towns, especially in the black townships, have been without piped water for the past ten years! The state has responded – similarly to how the apartheid state did – with its police apparatus and with violence. The massacre of striking mine workers at Marikana is the biggest blight on democratic South Africa’s history.

Or there are the systemic austerity measures of the past two decades in those critical areas of public health and education, where the state – and, by implication, the governing party – drags out its responses or simply ignores judicial injunctions, for example, with regard to the provision of affordable social housing. Most critical are the reports of the statistician-general, in which the agency has established not only that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, but that this social problem has been persistent since colonisation.3 Examples of this are to be found in the highly racialised and gender-biased labour market, as well as in the areas of life expectancy and well-being, where “race” and class overlap. The 2019 report clearly shows from the available data that inequality has increased since 1994, despite the introduction of universal social welfare services, because measures of redistribution have been abandoned, for example, those proposed in the RDP programmes of 1995.

Despite interventions by civil society and NGOs through litigation, why have we remained silent and immobile for this long? Could it be that those who have “made it” are so comfortable as not to care about the majority who live in poverty? Could it be that “depressed and exhausted” individuals are “angry (because) our hope has been stolen”, as suggested to me by an acquaintance?

While, in principle, I saw the need to sign the petition, I remain deeply sceptical of the force, durability and impact of this call to action. And while, both in principle and in practice, I recognise the urgent need to defend our young democracy and the invaluable Constitution, I fail to shake off a sense of misgiving. Misgiving as to how and whether the call will resonate with the “masses”; as to whether this may not lead to deeper and more disturbing polarisation across and within the governing party. Is it this that “the people” are calling for? If the petition is meant to stir the ANC to positive action, that is a pipe dream. If the wish is to stir the government and especially the presidency into decisive action, then one has to acknowledge that the administration itself has thrown its hands into the air at what is termed (near) Mexican conditions (William Gumede) – the state being run by criminal syndicates in cahoots with politicians, public servants, the police and the military – and overseen by an all-powerful oligarchy. It is here that chaos and violence reign supreme.

Is it this which we fear? Has this been the reason for our apathy?

Endnotes:

1 Statement issued by the Defend our Democracy! Defend our Constitution! campaign on Thursday 17 March 2021 – http://defendourdemocracy.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Defend-our-Democracy-Final-statement.pdf.

2 Statement issued by Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, general-secretary, on behalf of the South African Council of Churches on 28 February 2021.

3 See, for instance, the Inequality Report (2019) – http://www.statssa.gov.za/publications/Report-03-10-19/Report-03-10-192017.pdf.

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