Minister Bathabile Dlamini is a hot political mess. She defies the Constitutional Court’s authority with no fear of political consequence. How did we get here?
It is important not to scapegoat one arrogant minister for trampling on the principle of constitutional supremacy. We must make sense of the set of conditions that enable such arrogance.
Dlamini’s performance of constitutional waywardness is not an anomalous political act. It is simply the latest instance of what has become the norm in our political culture: habitual disregard for constitutional authority, and also unresponsive governance.
So how then did we get here?
In general I am wary of diagnosis that places excessive emphasis on the political system we designed when we chose the model of constitutional democracy that we ended up with in the early 1990s. There is, however, one part of the answer to the question I posed at the outset of this column — how did we get here? — that is connected to our political system.
Our political system places too much power in the hands of political party bosses and not enough in the hands of citizens. The distribution of real power, both politically and constitutionally, is unhelpfully skewed in favour of party structures and, ultimately, the party bosses who wield power inside those structures.
When a constitutional delinquent like Dlamini serves at the behest of another constitutional delinquent like Jacob Zuma, and neither serves directly at the behest of constituencies, then responsive government is less rather than more likely to happen.
That is a consequence of the electoral system we chose. We built into that system checks and balances that ought, in theory, to mitigate against unresponsive governance. This is where, for example, the principle of constitutional supremacy comes in.
Although Dlamini cannot be recalled from government by a constituency holding her directly accountable for being a hot political mess, citizens rely on other mechanisms enshrined in the Constitution to keep her on the straight and narrow.
We also rely on the Constitutional Court to ensure that her actions in office are subservient to the Constitution and, in fact, in line with the Constitution.
Here is the snag, however. There is a limit to what you can guarantee with the political systems you design. You cannot design a political system that is foolproof in dealing with useless public servants and political principals hell-bent on stealing or simply being unresponsive because they are drunk on power.
One can debate the marginal differences that this or that electoral system or this or that change in the Constitution might make to ensuring more responsive governance going forward. Ultimately, however, we got here because of a noxious political culture.
Political culture is a more important determinant of whether a government is responsive to the needs of its citizens than the theoretical features designed in the model of government and model of demo-cracy we chose in 1994.
Political culture, in turn, does not get enough airtime in public debate about the state of the state, and the state of our politics. That is partly because we focus excessively on individual political actors and partly because political scientists and commentators prefer talking about the design features of our system of government.
That is understandable and important. We should, however, add to those topics of discussion the issue of political culture. Why do we not have a culture of resigning when you mess up? Why do we not have a culture of respecting ethical duties as much as we (pretend to) respect legal duties?
You find, for example, public servants refusing to feel and to express a sense of shame unless and until they have been found guilty of committing a crime. In fact, it is not even clear that we respect the law sufficiently. We do, nevertheless, at least recognise that criminality is shameful.
Ethics is more fundamental than law. If someone like Dlamini or Zuma himself were political actors in a society in which the political culture was shaped by a deep commitment to ethically sound behaviour, both would have resigned by now.
We do not have a political culture grounded in commitment to ethically sound behaviour. We do not have a political culture that is centred on taking seriously the feedback citizens and civil society organisations give to the state.
Tragically, we have a political culture in which way too many politicians see themselves as philosopher-kings who know best, and who do citizens a favour by being in government.
This stuff isn’t a result of a design flaw in the system of government we signed up for. This is about the ingrained attitudes, beliefs and behavioural norms of politicians inside our political parties, inside the state and in the body politic more generally.
Cultural norms set in slowly, become habit and eventually feel self-justifying. They are difficult to undo precisely because they end up in the political DNA of our society.
We got here by ignoring the making of a toxic political culture that enabled someone like Dlamini to be the bumbling disaster that she is.