Yesterday’s judgment in the Constitutional Court was arguably the most important court ruling in our two decade-old democracy. Not only because it reaffirms the power of the Office of the Public Protector. Not only because it held President Zuma to account and ordered him to pay for non-security upgrades at Nkandla. Not only because it admonished the National Assembly for its failure to hold the president to account.
It was important because it sent out the strongest possible statement that we are still a nation governed by the Rule of Law. We are still a society in which everyone – including the most “untouchable” president – is seen as equal before the law. We are still a country with a fiercely independent judiciary that is prepared to make tough judgments for the sake of preserving our democracy.
Given the recent turmoil in the ruling party, in government and in our economy, we desperately needed this judgment. Because now, more than ever before, we have to remain hopeful about our chances at turning things around. We have one shot at it, and we must make it work.
For all its many challenges, South Africa has so much going for it. And one of the most important things we have to be grateful for is our form of government: a Constitutional Democracy.
Whether in Parliament, or in our National, Provincial and Local governments, it is the will of the people that determine our government. This is called “popular sovereignty” – the people are the ultimate source of our government’s authority, and it governs by their consent only.
It also governs with limited powers. In other words, the powers of our government are limited by a constitution that protects majority rule, but minority rights. And as far as constitutions go, ours is among the most progressive and well-considered in the world.
The citizens of many other countries in the world do not share this privilege. Elsewhere, brutal, illegitimate regimes completely disregard weak constitutions and trample on the rights of citizens in order to hold onto power and wealth. Spending a few minutes a day catching up on global news is enough to remind us what we have here, and what we must fight to protect.
The idea that anyone other than the people of South Africa have a hand in controlling the make-up or actions of our government is incompatible with the principles of our constitutional democracy. If this were to be the case, it would be an attack on our sovereignty. Effectively a coup.
And the idea that the highest authority in our land, the President, can deliberately disregard our Constitution to protect his power and wealth is equally incompatible with the principles of our constitutional democracy.
And yet both these things happened. In the space of a month we had to hear how private businessmen were putting together President Zuma’s cabinet for him – a cabinet that would give them access to our mines and our Treasury – and we had to hear from the highest court in the land how President Zuma had violated our Constitution to shield himself from a damning report by the Public Protector on his Nkandla home.
Both these events represent a grave threat to our democracy. And both these events render our president unfit to hold the highest office. Simply put, he must go or he will destroy our democracy.
Over the past month, the term “state capture” has become a national buzzword. We see it on our front pages, we see it on the TV, and we see it all over social media. But it is perhaps useful to explore what is meant by the term. Because when it comes to the actions of our president, there are two different kinds of state capture at play.
The first, and commonly accepted definition, refers to the control of government by companies and individuals in order to bend the rules in their favour. According to the IMF, state capture is “the efforts of firms to shape the laws, policies, and regulations of the state to their own advantage by providing illicit private gains to public officials”.
Revelations that the Gupta brothers approached several ministers and MPs with offers of cabinet posts in the South African government in return for their future cooperation has left us in no doubt: our government has been captured. Not by various big firms and pressure groups, but by one single family.
Of course, the Guptas knew they didn’t have to capture an entire government; they only had to get the president in their pocket. Thanks to the way his network of patronage is set up within the ANC, he was all they needed. The others would do whatever the president asked or risk losing it all.
So we heard about the Deputy Finance Minister, Mcebisi Jonas, being summoned to the Guptas’ Saxonwold headquarters to be offered the position of Finance Minister (which he declined, and which eventually went to Pravin Gordhan via David van Rooyen). We heard about then ANC MP, Vytjie Mentor, being offered the position of Public Enterprise Minister by the Guptas. We heard about attempts by the Guptas to meet then Mining Minister, Ngoako Ramathlodi, an approach which he refused (he was subsequently replaced by the Gupta-connected Mosebenzi Zwane). We heard about the former Eskom Chairman, Zola Tsotsi, and the former head of Government Communication & Information Systems, Themba Moseko, being co-opted to “help” the Guptas.
I have no doubt we will hear more and more stories about Gupta meddling as this tree is shaken and all the tainted cadres come tumbling out. As the saying goes: once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is a pattern. It is simply not possible for all these individuals to make up the same story, even though that is what the President and the Guptas’ spin doctors would have you believe.
Complicating the matter further for President Zuma is the fact that his son, Duduzane, is the fourth wheel on the Gupta wagon. He was given directorship in a number of the Gupta companies, including one that purchased Glencore’s Optimum coal mine, which supplies coal to an Eskom power station.
According to the President, they did so because they spotted Zuma junior’s talent and potential, which was being overlooked because he was the president’s son. But we all know it had little to do with talent and a lot to do with keeping the president close and pliable. The problem now is that if the Guptas go down, then Duduzane Zuma goes down with them. And the president will do anything in his power to prevent this.
Of course, the Guptas aren’t only interested in mining millions. They also need President Zuma’s financial blessing on their expanding media empire. Between the Gupta-owned The New Age newspaper and ANN7 TV channel, our government spends an extraordinary amount of money advertising in Gupta media outlets with a reach that simply does not justify anywhere near this spend.
For example, government spent over R10m advertising in The New Age the past financial year. The New Age has a claimed readership of 153,000. It spent an almost identical amount advertising in the Sowetan – a publication with more than ten times the readership of The New Age. That’s easy money if you have the president in your pocket.
And this then brings me to the second type of state capture that our president is involved in. If the first type was about business interests capturing him, then the second type is about him capturing organs of state, along with the media, through the deployment of loyal cadres to head up these bodies.
Because as he becomes deeper and deeper entangled in the Gupta web – along with his Arms Deal and Nkandla history – he needs more and more protection from investigation and prosecution. For this he needs the National Prosecuting Authority to look the other way, he needs the Hawks to go after his enemies, he needs SARS to stop digging in the affairs of his crooked associates, and he needs the media to tell his version of the story.
You can tick the Hawks and the NPA – their heads are already on Team Zuma. He’s busy working furiously on SARS, although he has hit a major speed bump in Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. And he has a substantial chunk of the SA media landscape on his payroll. The above-mentioned Gupta media being the obvious culprits, but his reach and influence into SABC TV and radio (through deployed cadres like Hlaudi Motsoeneng) have ensured a Zuma-friendly state broadcaster. Just look how the SABC pulled Vuyo Mvoko’s “On The Record” TV show when they heard he was about to host a show on state capture that would have portrayed President Zuma in an unflattering light.
Does all of this mean our country is doomed? Not by a long shot. If this week’s Constitutional Court judgment on Nkandla signified one thing, it is that our judiciary is still strong and independent. And by reaffirming the power of the Office of the Public Protector in this judgment, we know that we still have a watchdog to keep the President and his cronies honest.
Then there is the IEC – another crucial institution that the president has tried to bring under his control through the deployment of an ally in Glen Mashinini as Chair of the IEC – but which still remains largely unscathed. And this is of huge importance as we head towards this year’s Local Government Election.
Because the ANC is not going to get rid of Jacob Zuma. He’s wriggled his way too deep already, and they can’t dislodge him. Their NEC had the opportunity two weeks ago, but they chose instead to give him a standing ovation. Their Parliamentary caucus have had repeated opportunities to do so in recent months, but every time they chose to blindly back him despite knowing the most intimate details of his wrongdoings.
No, we cannot leave it in the hands of the ANC – they have proven to be toothless. It will come down to each and every South African. The choices we make at the ballot box have never been more important.
Starting with the municipal elections in a few months’ time, it will be up to each of us to say: No, President Zuma, our country is not for sale.