President Jacob Zuma thinks we are idiots. After showing no leadership on the social grants mess that is still not properly resolved, he finally says something about the issue — but then uses the opportunity to say something daft.
In case you missed it, he basically pleaded with concerned citizens to simply wait until April 1 to see whether or not the monthly grants are actually disbursed to those poor South Africans who rely on them.
He went a step further, telling Cabinet ministers and public servants not to worsen the situation by discussing the issue with critics. “The less we talk, the better,” he said.
The more serious of these two daft comments is the first one. The central issue in this debacle is not whether social grants will be handed out on April 1. That is a major and urgent and serious concern, for sure. Yet there is another nexus issue that cannot be easily swept under a Gupta carpet.
The Constitutional Court’s authority has been undermined by a government department’s noncompliance with a judgment from the highest court in the land. The principle of constitutional supremacy has been trampled on by the state.
Because the court judged the tender awarded to Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) to be invalid, the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) and the department of social development were required to implement the order of the court to ensure we get back on to a path of constitutional compliance.
This matters. The poor cannot eat constitutional judgments. Nevertheless, only a lazy thinker does not take seriously the very real connection between respect for the Constitutional Court’s authority and the fate of the poor.
If the state shows disdain for the Constitutional Court, we are all harmed by such an attitude because constitutional supremacy is the foundation of the society we designed in the early 1990s and that we are still striving to create.
Some of us are harmed more than others when the state becomes arrogant and unresponsive to the judiciary’s findings. The poorest of the poor invariably have fewer options for escaping an uncaring state than those who are not poor. So it is anti-poor and regressive to live in a South Africa where the state does not take the Constitutional Court’s judgments seriously.
That is the point the president is choosing to miss because admitting it would be conceding that hefinds constitutional supremacy to be a nuisance. Minister Bathabile Dlamini, who is the political head of the department responsible for this mess, clearly also finds constitutional supremacy to be an irritation.
Why else would she have ditched initial plans to go back to the Constitutional Court and ask for guidance on how to deal with this crisis?
The reason is simple. They do not want to go to the Constitutional Court because it could rebuke them and that becomes public record, and the court could also impose conditions on how to undo the unlawful contract still in place.
These conditions, as legal analyst Pierre de Vos pointed out, are inconvenient for a corporate like CPS. The court might impose a limit on what profits can be made in extending the invalid contract, and might also bar the company from owning or commercially exploiting the personal information of millions of poor South Africans who could have other products and services sold to them by a subsidiary company.
Now ask yourself this question: Why would the minister help out CPS? The state, and poor people, can only benefit if the court imposes these kinds of conditions. So, why would the state avoid the further guidance of the court? Only one real explanation makes sense to me at this point: someone powerful is benefiting from this deal.
In other words, the judiciary is an irritating obstacle to eating from the trough.
The clandestine meetings and opaque agreements in place are a way to keep the Constitutional Court’s oversight role at bay.
This brings me to the second daft comment from Zuma. You do not deal with a crisis by shutting up. You do not tell Cabinet ministers not to talk to the media, critics, civil society organisations and the concerned public.
You do not do us a favour by being in government. You serve at our
(dis)pleasure. That means you must account to the public. Accountability, in turn, is fundamentally premised on transparency, a free flow of information into the public space, and justifying the decisions you have taken when exercising the powers vested in you constitutionally.
What the president is in effect telling public servants is to undermine the basis of our democracy by encouraging secrecy, aloofness and the holding back of information that could inform the political preferences of voters.
He is role-modelling to his ministers how to take us all for granted. Sadly for him, we will not be fooled.
So do not be fooled. Even if 17‑million poor South Africans have food on the table on April 1, Zuma’s government has yet again been found wanting.
They continue to piss on the Constitution.