Democratic culture: Zuma has no clue

I’m giving up on President Jacob Zuma ever understanding or respecting democratic culture.

This past weekend, Zuma again lashed out at opposition parties, and also nameless analysts and commentators. He pleaded that the ANC be given space to govern, freely. And the basis of the plea, he tells us, is that the ANC won the elections, and in a democracy, one should respect majority rule.

President Jacob Zuma will lead the South African delegation to the WEF annual meeting at Davos. File picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi. Credit: INDEPENDENT MEDIA

From this, the president claims, it follows that certain kinds of behaviour are anti-democratic. Or, in outdated liberation movement lingo, “counter-revolutionary”. He gave three examples that have been recurring themes whenever he comments on what democracy is about.

It is counter-revolutionary to be an unduly critical commentator or analyst. It is counter-revolutionary for opposition parties like the Democratic Alliance to run to the courts when they are unhappy about state behaviour. And, last, it is counter-revolutionary for parties like the EFF to disrupt Parliament.

President Zuma doesn’t have a clue – still – what democratic culture is about. And it is little wonder, therefore, that he has deep disdain for being held accountable. There are several respects in which his oft-repeated view of our democracy is at odds with the kind of democratic system we designed.

First, our democracy is not about majoritarianism. We, in fact, have a constitutional democracy, which is a specific kind of democracy; one in which the express values enshrined in that constitution, and the underlying principles, must be respected, and promoted. Parliament and government are subservient to the constitution.

That just is the legal meaning of the principle of constitutional supremacy. It’s not the only kind of democracy you can have. But it is the one that the ANC signed up for.

Here’s what follows from this. It’s not good enough for Zuma to think that just because a clear numerical majority of voters voted for the ANC that it follows that the ANC government cannot be criticised or held accountable by opposition parties, thinkers in our society, active citizens or even by the ANC voters themselves, after they have voted.

Such a view is rubbish. This government, and every single future government we will have, is constitutionally obligated to realise the vision at the heart of the constitution. It follows that both politically and legally, it is perfectly acceptable for us to continuously evaluate how this government is getting on, not just by way of voting, but between elections as well.

So, when Zuma shows no respect for opposition politics, and the role and place of writers or analysts in society, he, in effect, shows he has no clue what constitutional democracy is about. He undermines the critical instrumental value of all of the accountability mechanisms that are built into the democratic model we have designed for ourselves. We can have rules for constitutional amendments to be made, but if we don’t effect such amendments, we must respect our own constitution.

And so, when anyone runs to the court – ordinary citizen, opposition party or civil society – it is with a view to testing the lawfulness of state action and inaction. That is not just allowed in a constitutional democracy, it is desirable. Democracies assume that fallible men and women hold power. Politicians and civil servants are not virtuous. The courts act as a safeguard against unconstitutional behaviour.

Zuma, in effect, wants no legal oversight over his government. That is not surprising. Because that would mean not having to be guided by lawful reasons when acting. Why on earth would we as citizens agree to a closed society, rather than the open, reason-based one we, in effect, chose?

The same goes for all the mechanisms of accountability: robust public discourse about every aspect of society, a role in part played by writers and analysts; maximum parliamentary oversight of government by opposition parties, which will include the EFF’s rather effective spectacle politics; etc.

We cannot afford to have a president who thinks that minorities or opposition parties have no right to speak, to criticise or to be critically engaged on the content of their views. We need a president who isn’t scared of any of the features of a democratic culture because we need such a culture and democratic institutions and practices to outlast any government of the day. Waspish attacks on those who are rehearsing democratic roles simply delay the development of a solid democratic culture.

Here’s the thing, Mr President: the space to govern freely isn’t closed down when Mmusi Maimane runs to the courts or Julius Malema chants in Parliament or when a cheeky columnist writes about the decline of the ANC.

No, Sir. The constitution gives you enormous powers to govern. And your electoral victory margin gives you, the ANC, popular legitimacy. The problem, Mr President, is that you’re not really interested in governing. Maybe time to retire?