President Jacob Zuma conveying a message during the 20th Celebration of Freedom Day held at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. South Africa. 27/04/2014. Siyabulela Duda

For the first time in a while it seems South Africa is rediscovering its traditional courage, a renewed appetite, for vigorous public debate, says Murray Williams.

Cape Town - The first fable I learned was of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. One of Aesop’s fables, the tale concerns a shepherd boy who repeatedly cries to nearby villagers that a wolf is attacking his flock.

When a wolf actually does appear and the boy again calls for help, the villagers do not come, thinking it another false alarm … And the sheep are eaten by the wolf.

As the next elections loom on Wednesday, that national debate has largely come to centre on one man, President Jacob Zuma.

One of South Africa’s most widely read commentators, Justice Malala, penned these words a while ago, in an article titled: “President Jacob Zuma is not a fool.”

Malala wrote: “He makes gaffes every week and has no idea what constitutionality means. But he is not a fool.

“He might not read – as has been alleged – but that does not mean he does not know what levers have to be cranked to ensure that he never gets inside a court.

“Since he became the president of the ANC in 2007, he has overseen the most concerted and successful assault on the country’s independent institutions.

“The judiciary is today facing a major crisis of confidence because of cases involving him at the Constitutional Court.

“The minute he won the ANC presidency in Polokwane, the Scorpions – which had been investigating him – were disbanded. It was quick, cruel and ruthless.

“Over the past few months it has been the public protector’s turn. In that time, we have witnessed concerted and co-ordinated attacks from Parliament, the executive and various wings of the ANC – on Thuli Madonsela.

“All this for one man: Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. The man is not a fool. He has managed to get Africa’s oldest liberation movement to become a tool for his protection,” Malala wrote.

Since the Nkandla scandal broke, widespread debate has followed – including, importantly, the ANC’s rightful reply. Is our nation under threat? Or are words such as Malala’s alarmist?

The ANC national leadership has dismissed with scorn and some aggression anyone who believes President Zuma simply has to resign, that he is “not a fit and proper person” to serve as our nation’s most senior national leader. This often tends to silence those who feel they must warn.

For the first time in a while, though, it seems South Africa is rediscovering its traditional courage, a renewed appetite, for vigorous public debate.

A nation’s political health lies in its ability to spontaneously, vigorously, openly contest views, ideas, assertions, allegations, interpretations.

And especially important to debate are warnings of grave danger. The greater the peril – real or perceived – the more widespread and inclusive the public debate should be.

Sometimes, all this is seen as “a nation tearing itself apart”. But the opposite, surely, must be true – that this is an open, free society in perfectly healthy action.

How blessed we are to enjoy a free press and an open public space, to be able to throw ourselves into the national dialogue with such vigour, without fear or favour.

And then to express our own conclusions as South Africans with direct, personal action – to say whether or not we believe “the wolf is real” – by the boxes we tick on May 7.

That’s good, solid, healthy democracy for you.

* Murray Williams’s column Shooting from the Lip appears in the Cape Argus every Friday. Follow him on Twitter: @mwdeadline

Cape Argus