Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. File picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Imraan Buccus says the ANC should act on the concerns raised in the Nkandla report instead of attacking the Public Protector.

Johannesburg - Thuli Madonsela’s report on the Nkandla scandal is turning into a constitutional crisis. As Trevor Manuel has argued, the ANC’s strident criticism of Madonsela is turning into an attack on our democratic architecture.

Manuel’s position on economic questions has been seen as seriously problematic by many. But no one ever said Manuel was not a democrat. When a figure like Manuel warns, as he has recently done, that the ruling party is moving away from democratic values we all have to stand up and listen.

Images of the president being booed are doing irreparable harm to the ANC’s image. The consequences of the Marikana massacre are still unfolding, but it is clear this massacre marked a turning point in the ruling party’s moral authority. But it has been Nkandla, more than anything else, that has damaged Zuma’s standing.

The ANC will, of course, win this election, but with a radically reduced majority. If things carry on as they are it is not impossible that the ruling party may struggle to remain in power in 2019. And the party faces a real challenge not only at the polls. Popular protest is escalating to extraordinary levels and is running at levels not seen since the height of the mass mobilisation in the 1980s.

The question that will shape all of our lives is how the ANC responds to its rapid decline. If the party responds by engaging in serious self-reflection and internal reform, including a search for credible leadership, it could rebuild its respect. But if it tries to manage its decline by stepping back from democratic commitments we will all be in for a rough time.

Early signs are that the ANC is looking to contain the situation with repression rather than to ameliorate it with reform.

The Marikana massacre was not the first time the police were used to repress popular struggles, but it was the most shocking. But police attacks on people organising outside of civil society do not always shock the middle class.

The sustained attempt to undermine the office of the public protector is a direct attack on one of the founding pillars of our democracy that will shock the middle class as well as the working class and poor, and send a clear signal to civil society that the ruling party is willing to ride roughshod over democratic principles in its attempt to arrest its decline.

In a country deeply divided by race and class Madonsela has emerged as an impressively unifying figure. She is respected from the shacklands of Durban to Sandton, and by black and white people. She has won real respect for her hard work, the efficiency with which she has run her office, her impartiality and her courage in taking on powerful figures and interests. She also runs an office we can believe in and, therefore, offers a vision of a democratic state that really works.

The attacks on Madonsela are coming thick and fast. Jeff Radebe and others snubbed her ombudsman summit. Gwede Mantashe has openly described her report on Nkandla as “political”.

Tina Joemat-Pettersson, one of the least respected ministers in President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet, is taking her to court.

And last week she was subject to what journalist Ranjeni Munusamy called “a bizarre attack by a group of pastors who accused her of having a political agenda against Independent Electoral Commission chairwoman Pansy Tlakula, SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng and Zuma”.

Zuma is a deeply compromised president. We all know that. But what we need to start taking seriously is the fact that attempts to protect the president are doing serious damage to our democracy. This is a great historical irony.

The ANC that brought Zuma to power is the same party that did more than any other to liberate us from apartheid. It has a great and noble history.

But if the interests of one man continue to be put before the interests of the country, the ANC will go down in history as just another liberation movement that failed in office.

If Zuma, and his party, want to step back from the low road they need to accept that Madonsela’s report might be difficult but that democracy is, inevitably, a difficult process for those in power.

Democracy is always messy.

It is always tough for those who have made mistakes. But South Africans are a forgiving people. If the ANC engages honestly with Madonsela’s report, and if actions are taken to rectify any problems identified, the ANC will come out of the whole process a lot better than if the attacks on the public protector continue.

If the attacks on the public protector do continue, and it becomes clear the ANC would rather attack the messenger than take the message seriously, our democracy and the ANC will be seriously damaged.

* Buccus is a research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the University of KwaZulul-Natal and the academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers

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