Democracy is yesterday’s hero

Another week, another institution offered up on the altar of political ambition and democratic myopia.

The year started on a post-Polokwane note that held out some hope for the opening up of political space and free debate. But it’s not seven months down the line and, arguably, the space is closing, as the key institutions of democracy come in for a drubbing from diverse political corners.

This week we reveal the strategy behind the ANC’s attacks on the judiciary as part of a concerted effort to ensure that the party’s president, Jacob Zuma, does not get his day in court. All democrats should be concerned.

Yes, the new ANC leadership does engage more robustly in public debate, but its foot soldiers have moved from debate to slander very quickly and have, in the process, hurt the countervailing institutions of rights and democracy.

Ironically, these institutions owe their birth to the very liberation movement that now seems hell-bent on destroying them. Right now the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the Constitutional Court are hobbled, if not disabled, by the slings and arrows of ambitious politicians.


The HRC was forced into a messy compromise with youth leader Julius Malema, who drew its ire after he issued an injunction to kill if Zuma’s corruption trial was not thrown out of court. Trade union leader Zwelinzima Vavi followed up with the riposte that the HRC was “yesterday’s hero”.

That’s the problem with today’s ANC — it appears to consider commitment to human rights, the separation of powers, an independent judiciary and other checks on power to be yesterday’s news.

How else should we read ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe’s extraordinary attack on Constitutional Court judges in our pages last week? They were, he said, a counter-revolutionary force.

The ANC basked in its reputation as a modern liberation movement able to craft advanced institutions of rights, but it gave these space to operate only within levels comfortable to the ruling party. As soon as it became uncomfortable with them the institutions became yesterday’s heroes and forces of counter-revolution.

This rot started with President Thabo Mbeki, who is the Jedi of institutional tampering. In the course of the arms deal investigation he hurt the reputations of Parliament, the auditor-general and the public protector by strong-arming them into executive compliance.

After the tragic Ginwala commission of inquiry, which ended this week, another institution lay shattered. The inquiry into the axing of the national director of public prosecutions, Vusi Pikoli, has harmed the prosecutorial service in ways we will only feel in the decades to come. Never mind what it has done to a good man. And, as Parliament winds up for the electoral year, the most important piece of legislation on its agenda is another spoke in the wheel of the campaign to kill off our independent institutions: the draft law aimed at incorporating the Scorpions into the police service.

By our count, that’s four institutions under attack in seven months. The post-Polokwane universe may prove to be less bounteous for democracy than we first hoped.

No place for megalomania
In 2008 there can be no more debate about the need for racial transformation. In a society where race was for so long the determining factor in who got the fatted calf and who the scraps, it is a crucial project, and one that will take many years. Sport, which is so closely bound up with our national identity, certainly cannot be exempt from this process.

Having said that, we wonder why the ANC would think that sport and recreation portfolio committee chairperson Butana Komphela’s unending stream of crude, uninformed and plainly racist utterances are taking the transformation debate forward.

Komphela seems to be enjoying the soapbox, in the belief that parliamentary privilege extends to protection for spewing nonsense and demanding that all and sundry cower before him. Parliament and its committees, like other institutions upon which our democracy is based, should be sacred ground and not a stomping ground for megalomaniacs out to validate their own existence.

It is a sad reflection on the sports and recreation committee and those who have placed Komphela in his very important and strategic position that they have opted to look the other way each time he puts his foot in his mouth.

Transformation in sport needs absolute sincerity and, at the minimum, an indication that those leading the process appreciate the sensitivities that are entailed.

South African sport needs a transformation champion in the mould of some of the greatest leaders we have had, men and women willing to hear the fears and the aspirations of those who seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum and prepared to work towards helping them to find meaning in the process.

This does not mean shying away from uncomfortable truths when the occasion demands it, but always doing so with sense that one is dealing with attitudes that have been ingrained over long periods.

Komphela patently does not have these attributes. He is a drawback to the cause he mistakenly thinks he is championing. Now he mentions the word impeach —

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