ISS: A year of passing the buck


The year is virtually at a close and it’s safe to say that this has been South Africa’s very own annus horribilis. The African National Congress (ANC) in government will try to convince us otherwise, but there is no other way to describe a year marked by a lack of leadership and accountability from our elected representatives and those in institutions meant to serve the public.

2014 will be remembered for the inability of President Jacob Zuma to take some responsibility – any responsibility – for the extravagant expenditure on his private residence at Nkandla.

Instead, bureaucrats have taken the blame for the excessive expenditure; an issue that has also brought Parliament to a crisis point. Zuma clearly believes he is above accounting to Parliament.

The ad hoc committee on Nkandla has done the hatchet job on behalf of the President, exonerating him, ignoring the Public Protector’s recommendation and misinterpreting the recent Western Cape High Court judgment regarding the powers of the Public Protector.

The opposition has called on the president to appear before Parliament to answer questions, yet it seems clear that he will not do so given that the business of Parliament has come to a close for the year. A ‘deal’ was supposedly struck between Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa as leader of government business, and the opposition, regarding the conduct in Parliament of opposition party members, and the president’s refusal to attend question time.

But what was the purpose of such a deal going to be? The opposition is calling for the president to come to Parliament, as required by the rules and in line with his constitutional obligations. Why should a deal have to be brokered at all regarding this? The speaker of Parliament should simply call on Zuma to fulfil his obligations. In any event, the deal is now off – a signal of just how divided the ANC is internally and how the centre seems incapable of holding despite Ramaphosa’s efforts. What this says about his future presidential prospects is a question for another day.

The lack of accountability from the president has affected other state institutions as well. With impunity, those in charge at South African Airways and the South African Broadcasting Corporation have lied about their academic qualifications and seem to have enough political cover to do so unashamedly and drag these public institutions down with them. The SA Post Office has had to be bailed out mostly because of corruption and mismanagement, despite the minister of finance calling for the tightening of belts. Tales of poor governance and mismanagement such as these abound.

The one sliver of accountability in recent days has been that the recommendation to appoint Tshepo Kadima as PetroSA chair was withdrawn following serious fraud allegations against him made by former South African High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Zola Skweyiya.

Probably the biggest casualty of Zuma’s ‘strongman’ politics is the degree to which the legitimacy of Parliament has been eroded. The speaker of Parliament and ANC party chairperson, Baleka Mbete, has presided over the House in a manner that seems to favour protecting the interests of the president and the ANC. This is an untenable position, and has led to the police being called into Parliament to break up near fisticuffs. No member of Parliament (MP) should break the rules of Parliament as some opposition party MPs have done, but it is the duty of the Speaker to preside in a non-partisan fashion and to contain any situation presented.

No one has taken political responsibility for calling the police into Parliament or for cutting the media feed when the action occurred. Again, despite calls from the media and civil society for responsibility to be taken, it seems that no one will be moved to do so.

The culture of impunity is near embedded and our capacity for absorbing poor governance seems endless.

This Friday, 5 December, will mark a year since Madiba’s passing. A true democrat, he understood the meaning of debate and of trying to convince one’s opponent by improving your argument. The image of Madiba, moving across the aisle in Parliament and shaking the hand of then leader of the opposition, Tony Leon, is a far cry from the recent events that saw police entering the parliamentary precinct and Mbete defending their action as ‘protecting Parliament’.

If poor governance and impunity have become the order of the day, then South Africa has moved far away from the ideals that Madiba stood for. Is it too much to ask that those in Zuma’s cabinet with any regard for Madiba’s legacy speak up against the erosion of Constitutional principles?

Written by Judith February, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.