“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
Charles Dickens wrote this of the years leading up to the French Revolution. He may as well have been referring to South Africa this week. Politically, it has been an alarming week, one which has caused many to despair for the country. And yet it contains seeds of hope. If we nurture them to fruition, South Africa will emerge the stronger for having endured the Zuma Presidency.
On Tuesday, the Zuma-captured Hawks (Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation) acting on instruction from the Zuma-captured NPA (National Prosecuting Authority) summoned Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan on fraud charges deemed irrational by legal experts. This weakened the rand, magnified the threat of a ratings downgrade, and struck a grave blow to our near-term prospects for job creation and poverty alleviation.
Meanwhile, our universities were under attack from #FeesMustFall protestors throwing stones, intimidating fellow students and setting property on fire in their attempt to bring about campus shutdowns until their ever-shifting demands are met. Without explanation, Treasury was given no representation on the team tasked to resolve this far-reaching crisis even though underfunding is its root cause.
Unperturbed, President Jacob Zuma was in Kenya, inspecting a Guard of Honour during the welcoming ceremony for his three day trip, and then dancing the night away at a State Banquet in his honour.
It is open knowledge that the attack on Gordhan is purely political. The Hawks have been circling since August; their swoop was inevitable. In terms of state capture, the Treasury is the big prize – conferring unrestricted access to state funds and rubber-stamping the nuclear deal.
The motives are blatant, the move all the more devastating coming at a time when Mr Gordhan is preparing the medium-term budget, the key lever with which to resolve the university funding crisis. Quite a week!
It was also the last week in office for Thuli Madonsela, our courageous Public Protector, whose time to expose Zuma / Gupta state capture is fast running out. Zuma employed his usual delay tactics, seeking a court interdict in an attempt to stop her from releasing her interim findings, while the Guptas issued her with threats. Zuma’s efforts to delay this investigation until Adv. Madonsela’s term is over vindicated our profound concerns about the appointment of the new Public Protector. We still hope she will prove us wrong.
The prevailing response to these dismal developments has been one of incredulity and despair. How can one man cause so much damage to so many for so long with such impunity? How is he getting away with murder – murder of our economy, our education system, our future? How can we stop this madness? These are the questions on the minds and lips of millions of angry South Africans.
In fact, there is cause for optimism. In essence, these moves are all symptoms of an ANC disintegrating under the sheer weight of prolonged cronyism, factionalism, cadre deployment and corruption. Zuma’s conduct is bringing this decay to a head, hastening a final resolution.
Zuma’s bold attack on our national wellbeing has awoken many sleeping giants. A wide range of countervailing forces are pushing back hard against the Zuma/Gupta attempt to capture our state. Last week, a Constitutional Court judge refused Zuma leave to appeal the reinstatement of his corruption charges. Opposition parties are winning more votes, the DA having just won three new metros. Myriad civil society organisations are speaking out and taking action: business groups, NGOs, churches, students and academics.
Even within the ANC there are forces speaking out. Its parliamentary caucus, traditionally a rubber stamp for the executive, seems to be finding its voice. But also the Gauteng ANC, SACP, some trade unions, an ANC subset called #OccupyLuthuliHouse, and many respected ANC veterans have come out strongly against Zuma’s corruption and state capture.
So South Africa is not yet at the precipice. And we’ll not only survive, but thrive, if we unite behind the Constitution and its vision of a prosperous, non-racial South Africa. If we make the right decisions now, we can emerge from the Zuma Presidency a stronger nation with a more resilient democracy, one far better protected from the threats of capture, cadre deployment and corruption.
The Zuma Presidency has shown our country what we must never allow to happen again. It has taught us valuable lessons: the importance of our Constitution, with its democratic institutions and rule of law that enable a vibrant civil society and a growing economy. We’re learning that our democracy is fragile; and we’re learning what needs to be done to strengthen it.
We can and must entrench an independent judicial system, public protector, national prosecuting authority, priority crimes directorate, media, and electoral commission by ensuring that the power to appoint individuals to top positions within these key democratic institutions lies beyond the Presidency.
We can and must entrench a strong and independent legislature that effectively oversees and checks executive power, by reforming our electoral system to include directly elected Members of Parliament.
If we get this right, then in ten years’ time, we will look back on these difficult days and see two distinct legacies. Zuma’s personal legacy will be one of cronyism, corruption and capture. The man will go down in history as the callous crook president. But the legacy of the Zuma Presidency might be a wonderful one – that united us, taught us what never to allow to happen again, and helped take our democracy from fragile to robust.
Ten years from now, we could look back and see that Zuma’s presidency brought us right up to the brink, but also ensured we’d never go over it. It was the worst of weeks, but it’s the spring of hope.