What will it take to halt institutional decay and defend the rule of law?

In his novel, The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco renders an allegory of political intrigue and corruption in a monastery set on the bucolic grounds in the northern parts of fourteenth-century Italy. William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk, reputed for his passion for truth, is brought in to investigate mysterious murders that have created an air of fear and dark foreboding in this hallowed abbey.

William, the sage, immediately gets into work to conduct a series of inquisitions, yielding only fragments of truth that fail to prove conclusive evidence of what caused the monks to perish. The principal of the place, or the abbot, gives the inquisitor the freedom of the abbey to undertake his investigation however he wishes but interdicts him from accessing a section of the library, the actual seat of evil, where the forbidden texts are housed, and where the murders originated. Some of these deaths had an appearance of suicide, while others showed signs of poisoning. 

In its visage, the monastery was a divinely crafted piece of architecture and a citadel of truth that, in the words of the investigator, revealed “the sturdiness and impregnability of the City of God”. Its beauty masked irreparable deformities and profanity of its soul. Beneath this façade nestled heretics and fugitives from the law; at its core, the monastery had become a theatre of vanity, factional battles, lust for power, and unbridled carnal urges. 

Those charged to look after this sanctuary had long forgotten its raison d’être as a pillar and foundation of the truth.  At the heart of the abbey’s moral decay was a visceral power struggle for control between the presiding officer – the abbot – and the librarian. Despite being the overseer of the holy flock, the former did not command full respect owing to his inexperience and shallow grasp of the deep secrets of the library. 

The librarian, though blind, saw himself as a rightful chief by virtue of his traditional seniority. He regarded himself as the faithful guardian of the secrets and traditions of the abbey and would murder and even burn the place to defend its secrets. These factional battles culminated into the incineration of the library and the entire monastery, with centuries of tradition and literature devoured by an insatiable fire, and all that was dear, that took centuries to build, was destroyed at a stroke. The ruins of the monastery would leave only a romantic fascination in the imagination of the future generations. 

Destruction is almost effortless. Preserving the vitality of society and nurturing what is precious is the hardest thing to do. It requires selfless leaders who have a multigenerational perspective. It also needs citizens who will do everything to fight for its soul; to preserve what is good by getting involved and taking a keen interest in its politics. 

Nations and their political systems are fragile, and this is more so for those that still contend with the pangs of transition from oppressive systems to democracy. For this reason, they need to be protected from the corrosive forces of venality and demagoguery. It is this combination of demagoguery and venality that threatens to tear asunder South Africa’s Constitutional foundations and political stability today. 

The Constitution can serve as a bulwark against destructive political tendencies, but its impregnability should never be taken for granted. Even though the Constitution protects citizens from the excesses of power and ensures impartiality in applying the rule of law, it can be paralysed by those who want to exercise unchecked power. We have to defend the rule of law tirelessly. 

The collapse of societies does not happen with a big bang. Institutional decay seeps in gradually. When politicians destroy or weaken public institutions, these may take many years or even generations to rebuild. The problem starts when citizens allow things to worsen over time, overlook minor infractions until they grow bigger, are indifferent, fail to hold politicians to account, and consistently choose the wrong leaders to preside over the country while hoping for different outcomes. 

South Africa has for some time been beholden to factional battles within the ruling party. The monument of corruption has been in the making for decades since the era of the arms deal to what we characterise today as state capture. Yet politicians strain to create a false impression that the real problem in our society is that of an imperfect Constitutional order or corruption-busting agencies that target politicians. The destruction of value in government goes deeper than any investigation can measure – from local government to provincial government to national government; this systematic destruction stretches all the way to state-owned enterprises. 

Two recent incidents are a reminder of the fallen state of our politics. The first is a statement by Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe in the wake of the release of the first instalment of the Zondo commission’s report. He suggested that Zondo’s report should not be used to prosecute party leaders, even though they may be of a criminal class. The second is the attack by Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu on the black judges. 

In the case of Mantashe, he prefers two systems of law: one for the members of the ruling party and the other for the general public. He will sleep peacefully as long as anyone other than a politician of the ruling party faces the law. Sisulu’s insidious but gratuitous attack on black judges aims to delegitimise them. Her actions could potentially erode the value of the Constitution and open it up to attack by her supporters. 

Conveniently, politicians ignore that the failure to deliver meaningful socioeconomic change is due to their incompetence, tolerance for corruption and deafness to the plight of black South Africans that are still trapped in conditions of poverty — the very conditions that corruption deepen. 

We should hold certain things sacred. One of those is the rule of law. The rule of law is a refuge from political vultures; it also gives us hope that institutions can regain their vitality. It provides us with a basis to navigate better political futures. We also have to recognise that the situation that we are in has been spawned over time and may take extraordinary effort by citizens to reverse. 

The principal source of our institutional decay is the failure of political leadership. This decay is exacerbated by factionalism centred on lust for power for its own sake and the blindness of the ruling party to the real challenges facing the country.

Real change lies in one of the two directions: a miraculous sea change in the character of the ruling party; this will require the reformists within the party to squeeze out those who are pulling the country backwards. Further, the president will need to throw his unequivocal support behind law enforcement agencies so that they can do their job with speed and without fear or favour. 

The second path will necessarily entail overhauling the current political order with new leadership and political agenda that genuinely serve the public interest. As long as leaders are driven by vanity, corrupt intent, and incompetence, we will continue to reap the same bitter fruits. 

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Mzukisi Qobo
Mzukisi Qobo is the head of the Wits School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand

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