An aspect of the groundswell against President Jacob Zuma’s looting ways has been bothering me. I could not quite figure out, until now, what that was.
Last Saturday former finance minister Pravin Gordhan took to the podium at the Ahmed Kathrada memorial service in Johannesburg. He told South Africans: “I am un-ashamedly encouraging mass mobilisation! The people shall govern!”
Instantly, I was transported back to being a little kid in the 1980s, when that kind of slogan was a refrain trotted out at the political funerals of fallen heroes in the fight against the wholly evil apartheid system and its racist government.
What we have seen play out in the public recently — and which reached a crescendo last weekend that will not be the last crescendo performed by choirs of dissenting voices — is reminiscent of the fight against the total onslaught of the apartheid government.
That, I think, is what has been bothering me. Echoes of the fight against a predemocratic regime are surely, in an important sense, deeply tragic.
There are at least two kinds of contestation in democracies.
There is contestation that does not shake the foundation of our democracy. This may include disagreement about leadership positions being fought for, ideological differences and questions about policy and of the state that provoke reasonable disagreement between citizens, and between political, corporate and other civil society actors.
We should not lose sleep over contestation in these areas. If anything, an absence of genuine and even of deep disagreement about these issues should worry us. That would signal a democracy that is unhealthy.
The second kind of contestation gives reason to worry. Contestation that habitually tests the very foundations of a democracy means that a democratic culture and commitment to constitutional democracy are not yet in place.
We are experiencing this latter kind of contestation in South Africa. That is why the echo of fighting the antidemocratic apartheid regime stings. There is no guarantee that constitutionally minded people are occupying positions within the state that are meant to safeguard our democracy against all threats, including politicians trampling on the Constitution.
Indeed, we have plenty of reason to characterise the police, the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority and crime intelligence as highly politicised.
We also have no guarantee that the principle of constitutional supremacy is accepted by everyone as the foundation of the society we signed up to in the early 1990s. Whether it is the Constitutional Court’s pronouncements on the president that one takes as an illustrative case study or the hubris of a social development minister unfazed by her disregard for the social security rights of millions, South Africans are now at the mercy of whatever political principals feel like doing when they wake up each day.
We cannot take for granted that the rule of law is as firmly entrenched in our political culture as eating at the trough.
Add to these horrible realities a sluggish economy, deep inequality and stubborn levels of poverty, and you have millions of poor people experiencing material deprivation with political hyenas preying on every one from the indigent to the hardworking working class.
This is not a democracy in which the political sins of the president, and those who prop him up, are merely leading to healthy democratic contestation. If that were the case, there would be no need for an existential crisis. The political mood would not be as justifiably sombre and volatile as it has felt of late.
There is a more dangerous reality here that we all have to take extremely seriously. We cannot dismiss it for fear of being characterised by the looters and their friends in low places as being melodramatic or mischievous.
Nothing more and nothing less than the very foundations of our democracy are at stake in the resolution of the mess that we are in. That mess, in turn, does not start and does not end with Zuma.
He, as the head of government, may be the most famous and most powerful symbol of the crisis. Zuma’s ascent to the top job, however, happened at a time when a rotting political culture had already begun to set in inside the ANC and, necessarily by extension, within the state.
A political nightmare does not just happen, like a freak weather event, out of the blue, in the middle of a period of political sunshine. Political nightmares are the result of an accumulation of small events that eventually trigger the nightmare’s unambiguous disruptive presence.
In our case, years of organisational neglect inside the ANC mean that the party has never dealt effectively with the so-called sins of incumbency, or an archaic political culture that predates Zuma’s victory in Polokwane in 2007. Since Polokwane, the neglect of the party’s organisational renewal has persisted, even as it took a resolution to do something about this at the Mangaung conference in 2012.
Sadly for the country, when the ANC sneezes, we all catch a cold. It is, I’m afraid, going to be a particularly nasty bout of lingering flu — not least because the president, as the head of the party, has enough headspace for two stuffy heads, and no one seems keen to quarantine him.