In search of active citizens

The manner in which charges against ANC president Jacob Zuma were withdrawn last week reflects the sad heart of our political culture and its dangerous conflation of the person of the leader, the party, the government and the state.

The past 15 years have been dominated by the imposition of this culture on our nascent democracy.

Under Thabo Mbeki, it became entrenched. South Africans have been conditioned to accept it despite the laudable principles contained in the separation of powers doctrine.

The colonial system was modelled on the governor-general as the embodiment of the power of the state. The apartheid state emulated this system, and post-colonial governments in Africa have fallen into the same trap, leading to a trail of destruction of democratic values and lack of accountability by former liberators turned dictators.

Since 1994 South Africa has witnessed the centralisation of power in the hands of the ANC president under the control first of Mbeki as deputy president and later as president.

Debate and dissent in the ANC were systematically suppressed and opponents demonised. The power to appoint all major public servants (Cabinet, premiers, metro mayors and leaders of the Chapter 9 institutions) concentrated too much power in a single person for the democracy not to be threatened.

To add insult to injury, the ANC’s deployment policy, in which cadres were appointed to all the major institutions of governance, despite the constitutional provision for an independent, professional civil service has ensured that loyalty trumps competence.

Such an approach to the exercise of power has rendered the very notion of accountability meaningless — and which we witnessed on such devastating display this week.

We should ask ourselves: how accountable was prosecutions chief Mokotedi Mpshe when he agreed that, although the merits of the prose­cution were watertight, charges should be dropped?

How accountable is former prosecutions director Bulelani Ngcuka, who attempted to manipulate an outcome even beyond his term of office? How accountable is the former head of the Scorpions, Leonard McCarthy, who refuses to explain his role?

Our parliamentary system, which lacks direct representation, has left citizens without the levers to influence or hold their parliamentary representatives to account.

So it is not surprising that Parliament has singularly failed to hold the executive to account. Its worst failure relates to the conduct of the arms deal. With the initial R12-billi­on spend ballooning to between R80-billion and R100-billion, it has broken a defence review rule that no procurement over R80-million could be contracted without parliamentary scrutiny.

Parliament’s public accounts’ committee tried, and failed, to review the deal, planting a cancer cell in our system that continues to erode the dream of our democracy.

The conflation of the ruling party with the government and the state is fuelled by the myth of the ruling party as the liberator of a passive citizenry that had to be rescued from apartheid. This is a historical and undermines the idea of an active citizenry that is aware of its power and uses it constructively to hold those in power to account.

The anti-apartheid struggle was waged by ordinary men, women and children. Our transition to democracy was made possible by a citizenry that showed it could transcend the divisions of the past. It is extremely damaging that citizens have been rendered powerless and dependent on a government that has cloaked itself in the mantle of liberator and thus the only legitimate governing party.

This is not to deny the ANC’s extremely important role in liberating South Africa. Many of its members made huge sacrifices for our freedom — but other players did so too. The government is put in a position of trust to ensure that we live up to our dreams, articu­lated in our Constitution, of a non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa.

It is vital that citizens are the guardians of this dream and hold whatever government comes to power to account. The conflation of government and state must be replaced by the promotion of accountable politics.

Ultimately, the citizens must be the stewards of a democracy that operates through a government that respects the citizenry and the basic principles of our democracy and is transparent and accountable for its actions, from the highest to the lowest office.

The reported abuse of state organs detailed in the NPA statement speaks of the violation of the entrenched constitutional principle of separation of powers. It poses immeasurable risks to our democracy, given the danger of intelligence agents playing games behind the scenes.

Former MP Kader Asmal has produced a report detailing the weakness of our Chapter 9 institutions — and it is gathering dust.

This is another systemic risk that must be tackled.

We can all be proud of our judiciary, but it too is not immune from this systematic attack. It is vital that citizens are vigilant in ensuring that this bastion of our Constitution is not eroded.

From the Zuma saga, South Africa’s citizens must learn about the importance of active citizenship. Worldwide, it has been the only guardian of leading democracies.

We are blessed with a beautiful country and we owe it to ourselves and future generations to promote and protect this democracy.

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