South Africa: Nkandla, a turning point for a young democracy

March 26, 2014 5:20 pm0 comments by:

A lot of people, local and foreign, do not believe how far SA has come. It is quite remarkable how much our young democracy has grown.

South Africa has made great strides since 1994. Irrespective of what apartheid apologist say, of what naysayer howl, South Africa is moving forward. Those of us who work in government, or work with government, know this. We know that the two decades of democracy are a milestone worthy of celebration.

In this mass of things, last week, Thuli Madonsela – the Public Protector appointed in terms of the Constitution – released a report (Secure in Comfort) into the security upgrades on the President’s homestead in Nkandla.

In the report, Madonsela gave instructions to a sitting, democratically elected President. The instructions were given by Madonsela in terms of her powers under the Constitution and other relevant laws.

The report a cataclysmic event in our young democracy. A question worth asking is whether the Report and the instructions given to the president have any bite beyond the immediate blunders of the current government.

A day after the Madonsela issued the Report, while facilitating a student discussion on democracy, somebody asked me ‘what is Thuli Madonsela role in democracy?’ This is a fundamental question that needs to be answered by all.

The Preamble to the Constitution, after detailing the struggles of the past, provides that

“We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to— Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights [and to] lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law.”

The crafters of the Constitution left no stone unturned in advancing this vision of a constitutional democratic South Africa. Over and above the founding values, the rights in the Bill of Rights, the principles of government enumerated (see sections 41 and 195) and a strong and independent judiciary, the crafters also created certain institutions to serve as a brace should the other institutions fail. These are often referred to as “Chapter 9” institutions, of which the Office of Public Protector is one.

The Office of the Public Protector is therefore one of several institutions created by the Constitution to protect the public from the “tyranny of democracy”.

It is important to understand that the Public Protector is not a sheriff policing government, but an institution created by the Constitution to advance the principles of transparency, accountability, and responsiveness.

Like all ombudsman, the Public Protector must work together with government to advance good governance and accountability.

The responsibility to support the Office of the Public Protector befalls all of us. The Office must not be used as a tool for petty politicking as we have recently witnessed.

Since the issue of the Report into the security upgrades in Nkandla, there have been several distasteful and regressive attempts to use the Report for petty politicking.

First, there were tasteless short messages associated with the Democratic Alliance, an official opposition party, imputing comments that the president “stole” from the public to the Report. This is in fact contrary to the findings of the Public Protector.

Second, and to my awe, there was a column by John Kane-Berman of the South African Institute for Race Relations. Kane-Berman argues that–

“How the African National Congress (ANC) handles Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s Secure in Comfort report into the Nkandla affair is likely to confirm beyond reasonable doubt one of the key differences between financial corruption under National Party (NP) and corruption under ANC rule. NP financial corruption was incidental. ANC financial corruption is systemic.”

Kane-Berman concludes his column with a startling assertion that “The biggest difference between then and now is that, in the end, the Nats had a sense of shame. ANC corruption is shameless.” Kane-Berman makes no attempt to explain what he means by incidental or how the Nats had shame.

Finally, there were disparaging and sexist insults hauled at Madonsela by the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and Congress of South African Students (COSAS). The ANCYL and COSAS are also calling for Madonsela to resign.

As South Africans, we must be cautious of how we engage in democratic discourse. A ‘holier than thou attitude’ does nothing for nation-building. The truth is, there are people from both sides of the spectrum who want our democratic project to fail –– those on the far-left who hope for a Marxist revolution and those of the far-right who hope for a “European South Africa”.

The Public Protector’s Report shows deep-seated and systematic failures in South Africa’s public procurement system. There is a lack of accountability and worrying opaqueness. Yet, these problems are not person-specific, they are systematic. A short-term political gain for the opposition will serve no greater national purpose. If anything, as a recent Sunday Times poll by Ipsos has shown, civil society is polarised by the issues.

When public officials have large amounts of state money at their disposal with no effective and efficient mechanism for transparency and accountability, corruption is a natural occurrence.

We, as a nation, must come up with long-term solutions. One possible solution is to create a Parliamentary Committee* with proportional representation of parties to approve future spending on state officials. Such a committee could, for example, scrutinise all procurement processes and pre-approve all budgets. Instead of using the report as capital for short-term political gain, we could use it to drive such a measure in parliament.

Winston Churchill once said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” South Africans must be careful not to learn this the hard way.

*A friend, after reading a draft version of this column, pointed out that President Zuma has already hinted about formation of such a committee. I will supplement this post when further details emerge.

Brad Cibane writes in his personal capacity.

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