Our history has reached a turning pointComment on this story
The unmitigated efforts to discredit Thuli Madonsela’s findings will undoubtedly have major consequences for our democracy, warns Mcebisi Ndletyana.
As I sought to make meaning of Thuli Madonsela’s report on improper expenditure at President Jacob Zuma’s private residence, I was reminded of a speech Abraham Lincoln made on January 27, 1838.
Then an aspirant politician, who later became the 16th president of the US, Lincoln was addressing a gathering of the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. He titled his talk, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions”.
At the time of that address, America had been a democracy for more than 50 years.
But, that considerable duration of time, Lincoln warned in his talk, did not guarantee American democracy permanency. Not that Lincoln doubted the depth of American democracy.
On the contrary, Lincoln extolled it: “In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People, find our account running under the date of the 19th century of the Christian era… We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducting more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us.”
Though rare, Lincoln didn’t find the establishment of American democracy bewildering. He considered it a fitting testimony to the calibre of its founders. Lincoln put it as follows: “Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, (we) expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it: their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical: namely the capability of a people to govern themselves.”
On the evening of this address, however, Lincoln was overcome by a sense of foreboding. American public life was showing signs of being usurped by passion, suppressing reason and logic. Although distressed by the ignominy that threatened to sully their democratic inheritance, Lincoln was not entirely surprised by the turn of events. “…I believe it is true”, Lincoln explained, “that with the catching, ends the pleasure of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they too, will seek a field.
“It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will continue to spring up amongst us. And when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have done so before them.
“The question then is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot.”
Delivered almost 200 years ago, Lincoln’s words ring true in today’s South Africa just as they did in 19th-century America.
South Africa’s democratic institutions, established only 20 years ago, had buoyed her into the elite club of the most progressive societies in the world.
Its founders were hailed as perfect exemplars of the best that resides in humanity.
The founders derived gratification purely from the distinction and vibrancy of South Africa’s political institutions.
But, what was a mark of our distinction – political institutions – now faces tremendous strain.
We’re in the midst of yet another dark episode in our democratic experiment.
An institution set up to shore up democracy, the Office of the Public Protector, has itself been subjected to repeated attempts to strangle it.
The cabinet engaged in all manner of shenanigans to thwart Madonsela’s efforts to uncover how government spent public resources on the president’s home.
In one letter dated March 22, 2013, Minister Nathi Mthethwa insisted that Madonsela halt her probe and defer to the auditor-general (AG) and the Special Investigative Unit (SIU) to undertake the investigation instead.
He said all this knowing that the AG had earlier declined that request and the SIU was in a shambles.
The latter was without a head, a situation that had then lingered on for more than a year.
The minister’s approach to Madonsela, therefore, was not to prevent parallel probes, as he claimed, as no other investigation was under way.
Rather, Mthethwa and his colleagues wanted to smother Madonsela’s probe.
When it became clear that Madonsela was unrelenting, a lynch mob was unleashed upon her.
Rather than point out flaws in Madonsela’s reports, they simply denounced her as a charlatan.
The mob couldn’t be bothered with facts. For insisting on merit in the appointment of a chief operations officer of the public broadcaster, Madonsela was vilified.
Characteristic of a mob, Madonsela’s detractors discarded reason and logic, and insisted that we uphold mediocrity.
So incredible has this dark episode been that even priests resemble witches.
Trained to side with the underdog and uphold justice, they remonstrated in support of impropriety.
To them, virtue is vice. Madonsela, the priests fumed, “was possessed by demonic spirits”.
What they purported to be a prayer, to free her of the demons, looked more like an exercise in witchcraft – casting a spell.
How else does one explain the acts of people who are seemingly priests, yet see vice in virtue?
Now we know what occasioned the madness and ministerial attempts to stifle Madonsela.
It was meant to conceal presidential impropriety.
President Jacob Zuma knew of and approved the excessive, wasteful and unwarranted expenditure at his private home.
Madonsela uncovered countless records of meetings noting that Zuma was consulted, complained about delays and inquired on behalf of neighbours that were to be relocated.
There’s no record of him objecting to the wastage of public resources, but that he was a gleeful and impatient beneficiary.
The sleaze includes building his neighbours’ houses worth millions as replacements for their rondavels, erecting a remote-controlled kraal and, of course, the swimming pool disguised as a “fire-pool”.
And, the note that apportioned some costs to Zuma’s personal account has mysteriously disappeared.
There doesn’t seem to have been any intention to make the president pay for his personal comfort.
The president of the republic didn’t protect the public purse, but drained it.
Once he instructed hiring of consultants and contractors without a bidding process, Zuma effectively issued a licence to loot.
Bidding allows for the selection of the most cost-effective service providers, while lack of competitive bids removes any inclination to restrain costs.
Clearly, our head of state was not bothered by costs, but wanted to be “secure in comfort”.
The ruling party is deliberating and Parliament ought to meet soon to decide whether President Zuma should be held accountable for this misconduct and failure to perform his duties.
It may be too optimistic to expect Parliament or the ruling party to remove Zuma on the verge of an election, as this would destabilise the party.
The outcome of this saga will, however, determine the fate of our institutions. If there were ever a time to signal any possibility of a party renewal or send out hope that moral decay will ever be arrested, or even reversed, it is now.
History will record this moment as a turning point.
What verdict history pronounces hinges on what unfolds in the next few days. I wonder what it will say of those who had the power to influence the outcome?
*Ndletyana is head of Political Economy at Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA).
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.