Negative news from South Africa dominated the headlines last week, as President Jacob Zuma revealed that he is an uneducated oaf, completely lacking in the skills required of a President and contemptuous of the institutions of state. He also managed to wipe ZAR200 billion (about US$1.5 billion) off the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. That’s the same amount that government spent on basic education in the 2014 budget – gone in 2 days. It is alleged that Zuma fired Nhalhla Nene because he refused to continue bailing out the ailing state-owned South African Airways, a pet project of one the Presidents girlfriends. Who knows? Unfortunately, the international press loves a doom and gloom story about Africa, so its important that we look at another event that received wide coverage, even if it was drowned out by Zuma firing and hiring three finance ministers in four days. It is the story of King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo of the abaThembu. It is important because the press and the public frequently assess the strength of the state based solely on the performance of the executive. But a modern democratic state has three pillars, all of which are important. The Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature of the South African state are in vastly different conditions of health. There are some who suggest considering the media a fourth pillar of state, and there are some very revealing events last week that showed who is who in the South African media zoo.
I’m not going to waste time to repeat what others have said about the Executive. Never, never, with the possible exception of PW Botha, has South Africa had such outstandingly incompetent, arrogant, and ignorant leadership. Let’s leave it at that.
The Legislature consists of 400 members elected by proportional representation. In the 2014 elections the ANC won 249 seats (62%) the DA won 89 seats (22%) and the EFF won 25 seats (6%). The remaining 37 seats are held by minor regional parties. That’s quite a diverse mix by any standards, and far more diverse than most African parliaments. Although the legislature is dominated by the ANC, this is a shallow assessment of the state of the institution. Provincial legislatures run SA’s nine provinces and as the DA held Western Cape shows, there is considerable power to control local governance when opposition parties win control of provincial legislatures. By any account, and especially by African standards, the state of the legislature and the electoral system that delivers candidates to represent the people is strong. More importantly it is resilient to the gerrymandering which it seems Jacob Zuma would like to subject it to. The ANC may have become a mere tool in his hands (to the considerable disquiet of many senior members) but the legislature and the electoral system have not. In the 2014 elections 26,000 South Africans living outside the country were able to cast a their ballots for the first time after parliament passed the Electoral Amendment Act in 2013. Its fair to say that most of these voters would not have been voting for the ANC and yet the ANC dominated legislature passed the law which allows these citizens to vote. Similar debates in other African countries to allow their diaspora to vote by postal ballot have fallen on deaf (and one suspects, wilfully deaf) ears because the diaspora tend to vote for the opposition.
South Africa has a dynamic, vocal and vigilant media, many of whom cut their teeth on opposing the actions of PW Botha’s apartheid government. They do not back down easily when they smell a story that is in the public interest. But Zuma’s role in undermining the independence of state institutions came to a head last week as the story of Nhlahla Nene’s dismissal became big news. The state owned media ignored the story. There are reports that employees at SABC radio and television stations were told not to discuss the incident. This Soviet era approach to regulating the state media mirrors Zuma’s own economic and political insight, which he revealed in an unscripted speech last week, to be firmly rooted in the 1950’s. In the age of the internet, this attempt to control information looks increasingly ridiculous. And that is the point. The ANC control at the SABC is disquieting, but in a changing, more open world it is less menacing, less indicative of terminal decline, and more akin to buffoonery. The employees of the SABC look like the subservient fools they have now shown themselves to be. One wonders if they actually refer to Zuma as “Comrade President” and can keep a straight face at the same time? In South Africa, the non-state media are thriving, independent and not about to be cowed by Jacob Zuma. The state media is servile, sycophantic and spineless. The extent that these two extremes say anything about this fourth pillar of state is difficult to assess, but I would suggest that after decades of state media being abused by both the apartheid and the ANC governments, the people of South Africa will seek the truth which is handed out on street corners and in online publications in eloquent abundance.
Oscar Pistorius gave South Africa its first olympic hero, but he also gave South Africa the first opportunity to showcase its judiciary on the international stage. The measured approach to televising the trial, the ordered proceedings, the ruling and the subsequent appeal were a model of judicial procedure that should be the envy of any country in the world. As a pillar of state the Judiciary in South Africa is rock solid. Rulings against the government occur regularly. The conviction of King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo of the abaThembu for kidnapping and defeating the ends of justice by the Supreme Court of Appeal is important. Although the appeal process has taken six years, a senior member of a prominent traditional household, with close links to Nelson Mandela, will be in prison for 12 years by the time this blog post is published. Given that Zuma is strongly courting traditional leaders and their rural constituents as urban support for the ANC declines, this is a highly significant ruling. Most assessments of power in the ANC are ignoring the attempts to shift power from a largely urban base to a rural one, in much the same way as Mugabe did in Zimbabwe when he lost support in the cities. In nearly any other African country a traditional chief of this standing would be highly unlikely to be prosecuted for a crime of this nature. It would have remained a traditional matter. Appeals by senior politicians, behind the scenes manoeuvring and interference and intimidation against lawyers and magistrates would all be used to prevent a traditional leader of this standing from going to prison. The South African Judiciary continue to stand solid as a pillar of state in South Africa.
South Africa is battered and bruised, but the heart beats strongly. Nothing shows this more than the speed with which the system put pressure on Zuma to reverse his decision. Last week, on the brink of crisis, the system worked. However, there are definitely reasons to be worried. Slow economic growth, Zuma’s appalling governance, potential financial downgrades and the failure to address poverty are factors that will have serious consequences if left unchecked. The simplistic interpretations of history and economic theory that Zuma and his cohort of leaders believes in, does not bode well for building a functioning economy and an inclusive society. The outdated African socialist, anti-colonialist rhetoric needs to be toned down and the country needs to embrace the future rather than obsess about the past. If a dead horse has ever been flogged so hard in African politics, surely it must be the dead horse of using African socialist rhetoric to provide all the solutions to our problems and anti-colonialist rhetoric to provide all the reasons for their existence? Can’t we come up with some original ideas?
Also, South Africans need to stop lying to themselves. Setting a 30% pass mark for obtaining a high school leaving certificate constitutes nothing other than a giant lie, a con of dangerous and epic proportions, in a country where education is so important. The loss of 50% of the country’s manufacturing capacity in the last 10 years, while politicians endlessly discuss redistribution of wealth is another lie. Without growth, and especially the growth of manufacturing, there will be no wealth to redistribute. The plans for a scaled down version of a Scandinavian-style social security system is another lie, designed to provide hope for the hopeless who need quality education and jobs, not handouts. As former finance minister Nene agreed, the country cannot afford such luxuries. And Jacob Zuma needs to stop lying about his girlfriends and get his own pillar of state under control. Just saying.