There's no need to fear Zuma

Recently, some editorials in South Africa’s national newspapers have degenerated to unprecedented levels of poor taste.

Take, for example, that awful line written in the Sunday Times editorial in the aftermath of the brutal murder of Brett Kebble that read: ” ... may no one like you be born again”.

All there was at the time of his murder was a series of allegations, investigations and perhaps even the early stages of prosecution that have now come to naught.
The writer of that editorial should therefore have taken the time to ponder the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, the cornerstone of our democracy, which holds as the supreme law of the land that every human being has inherent dignity and the right to have his or her dignity respected and protected. Kebble, like all other South Africans, in life and in death, has the right to human dignity.

The Bill of Rights and our constitutional democracy also provide a useful frame of reference when looking at the past week’s Mail & Guardian editorial headed by another awful line: “Be afraid—be very afraid”.

This headline reminds one of the racist and backward propaganda that we were subjected to in “an earlier and darker age” of our history, which warned of the dangers of majority and democratic rule in our country. It is also not dissimilar to that used today by the neo-conservative administration of the United States (“Axis of Evil”) to wage war and to impose regime change on those whom it perceives to be against it. Needless to say, this kind of sensationalist propaganda is designed to -“pander to the basest instincts of ordinary people”, and mainly to the human instinct of fear of the other and the fear of the unknown.

But what is the basis of this irresponsible sensationalism? Why should South Africans be afraid of an African National Congress-led government under the leadership of Jacob Zuma? We are told that we must fear this because, among other things, he was escorted to and from court protected by the South African Police Service’s VIP protection unit, disrespectfully described by the editorial as “bald-headed toughs”.

Is that really a basis for South Africans to fear the future? Or should we fear the future of our country because a senior politician from the majority party is challenging the lack of progress in the transformation of the judiciary and the perceived abuse of power by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA)? In fact, should we not fear the future of the country if there is no significant progress in the transformation of the judiciary and if indeed the abuse of authority by the NPA becomes more entrenched and widespread?

The Bill of Rights is very clear on the rights of an accused person, which include, among other rights, the right to a fair trial, the right to be informed of the charge with sufficient detail to answer it, the right to have his or her trial begin and conclude without reasonable delay and, most of all, the right to be presumed innocent. All of these rights, which were struggled for in the dark days of our history, were contested in the magistrate’s court last week in the matter of the State v Jacob Zuma. Our constitutional democracy ensured that they were upheld in favour of Zuma, as they should be for all accused persons. As demonstrated last week, in the final analysis it will be the willingness of South Africans, wealthy or poor, mighty or weak, to assert their hard-won constitutional rights.

And the preparedness of our courts to uphold these rights will bolster public confidence in the judiciary. Nothing more, nothing less.

However, the treatment of these important tenets of our constitutional democracy by some sections of the media leaves much to be desired, and this compromises the media’s ability to deepen and enhance the quality of our constitutional democracy. If the media continue to be discriminatory in their treatment of these issues, they would justifiably be condemned for having surrendered their freedom and independence to the agendas of others.

It is correct to advocate for respect for the rule of law and for the institutions of South Africa’s democracy. This must be so even when there is disagreement with the decisions and findings of these institutions. The call to respect the rule of law has been often repeated by some sections of the media recently, and correctly so. However, the sincerity of such petitions is somewhat hollow when it is recalled that the media have, on occasion, rejected the ruling of the courts that found against them, or when they also trash the findings and the integrity of state institutions supporting our constitutional democracy, such as the public protector, which was established by the supreme law of the land.

When the public protector criticised the M&G, as happened in the matter of the Oilgate affair, the clamour against and denigration of that institution was appalling. Clearly, this selective conduct is hypocritical and inconsistent to say the least, and it is this conduct rather than that of Zuma that “inflicts damage on our constitutional democracy”, which you warned us of last week.

The Public Protector, Lawrence Mushwana, the head of an important institution of South Africa’s democracy, has found that the NPA violated the constitutional rights of Zuma. The same could be said on the violations of Mac Maharaj’s rights by the NPA as found by Judge Joos Hefer, and on the violation of Zuma’s client-attorney privilege by the unlawful conduct of the NPA, as found by Judge Ismail Hussain. Coincidently, Judge Hussain, in giving his ruling, made a telling comment on the conduct of the NPA when he said that not even in the dark days of apartheid was the client-attorney privilege violated. Are these abuses of authority of no consequence to the rule of law in our country and to the future of our constitutional democracy? If they are, how then do we explain the silence of the media in these important matters of national interest?

Perhaps we need to reflect on the comments of Bruce Page in his introduction to his book, The Murdoch Archipelago, when he writes: “Silence is what counts. When CP Scott said that every newspaper was something of a monopoly and that comment was free but facts are sacred, he insisted that abuse of monopoly was as much a negative as a positive action: ‘Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give … must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong.’” This is indeed the case, and by its silence on these matters and its selective utterances on others, the media make the truth suffer wrong.

Those of us who know the ANC remain confident that, despite the challenges and the difficulties faced by the ANC currently, it shall endure as the leading force of our national democratic revolution for the decades to come. It will be the ANC and its membership that will determine, in keeping with its constitution and its democratic practice, who will be their president. Surely the ANC has the democratic right to elect its own president. A study of the history, practice, culture and experience of the ANC as a political movement since 1912 reassures us all that such a person will be guided and bound by the policies of the ANC and will act according to such policies, wherever they are deployed, be it within or outside of government.

This has been the experience of the country for the past decade and will continue to be so for the decades to come. Attempts to influence the choices that the ANC membership makes in so far as its leadership is concerned, by the usage of sensational propaganda based on the paranoia of the few and designed to generate a fear of the future, are tantamount to nothing less than poor efforts at producing “regime change” within the ANC. Surely, as democrats we must reject these attempts here at home, as we have done elsewhere in the world.

Let me end with Andrea Whittam Smith’s definition of “editorial independence”, which provides food for thought. “The notion of independence doesn’t mean an absence of strong opinions, or the perfect balance of arguments against this or that. It doesn’t mean a particular system of ownership. It is simply a promise to readers. That everything you find in the newspaper represents the editorial team’s own agenda and nobody else’s; neither the advertising department’s, nor the owner’s, nor any particular political party’s, nor any business interests.” So true! Long live editorial independence! Long live!