April 7, 2016
I wrote this during the week and initially decided not to publish. The response of church leaders yesterday gave me a place where I’m willing to position myself, allowing to more easily share my thoughts for a time like this.
Perhaps I’ve always been slightly skeptical of the things that “everyone beliefs”. Perhaps I just listened to some very good friends pointing out that the initial #Zumamustfall events were more about white people defending their rejection of black majority rule than about movements actually seeking the good of “we the people”. Perhaps I’m just inherently skeptical about party-politicians, or else overly optimistic about constitutional democratic processes. For whichever reason, I find myself in this awkward place where it seems like my entire facebook timeline, who usually cannot agree either on how the Bible should be read or whether capitalism is a good idea, is in agreement that Zuma Must Fall. So I’m driven to writing, perhaps answering the question of a friend on what I would have added to the 6 April declaration by civil society organization, perhaps just giving some substance to my awkward attempts at toning down the slightly extremist language I’ve seen flame up. So this is my attempt at explaining why I’m not overly optimistic about the fall of Zuma, even if I do suspect that this is an inevitable event.
Some disclaimers are in order. I have no party political affiliation. I’m an ordained minister of a church which clearly state that you cannot remain ordained while being in any kind of leadership position in a political party. Together with many others I tend to expand this regulation to imply that you cannot remain ordained while being a card carrying member of any political party. In short: as a ordained minister I consider it part of my duty never to uncritically support a political party. But I am a ferocious supporter of the vote, and think that people should vote and that their vote should be held close to sacred.
So why am I not getting caught up in #ZumaMustFall? I’m not going to even attempt to defend president Jacob Zuma. He’s made some inexcusable mistakes, even while not everything he did was a mistake. Personally I kind of assumed that he’ll be recalled for some reasons like “bad health” around the time of the election of the next ANC president. I’m not really in favour of recalling presidents. I think we risk creating the belief that we can always “fix it later” if we’ve made a democratic mistake. As a rule that shouldn’t happen. We should vote with the assumption that we’ll be stuck with the elected official for 5 years, and make sure we vote for people we’d want to do the job for 5 years. In South Africa the recall of a second president in a row would be particularly problematic. That said, perhaps we are in a particularly problematic situation, warranting exceptional action. But let’s remember, recalling, impeaching or retiring a president should be an extremely exceptional thing.
But since the Constitutional Court case I’ve really struggled to buy into the call for Zuma to retire, be recalled or be impeached. Perhaps it’s the huge grey-ness around what exactly the call is that’s partly to blame for my lack of enthusiasm. I mean, what do civil society want? Should Zuma announce that he is retiring due to health reasons (we’ll all know that it won’t be entirely true, although I think if he doesn’t have health problems given the recent stress he must experience then he would surely be an exceptional man)? Should the ANC get together and recall him? Should parliament vote that they have no confidence in him or should they impeach him? It seems like we really don’t care: as long as the chair of the presidents office isn’t being warmed by him, it looks like my facebook timeline would be happy.
Let’s intersect the argument by just noting that any call for the fall the fall of the president play into an ongoing party political discourse. Yes we know, certain political parties has for a long time been telling us that the real problem with South Africa is Jacob Zuma, or for those slightly less committed to democracy and more willing to question majority vote, the ANC. One problem with at least the official opposition is that they’ve been raising some serious concerns about whether they really want Zuma to fall. Let me explain it this way: each call for a “vote of no confidence” or “impeachment” by the official opposition insures that it cannot happen in the immediate future. Obviously the majority party in parliament won’t be voting in a favour of a resolution to get rid of their appointed president if brought forth by the opposition. But more than that, it forces a greatly divided majority party to close ranks and defend a deeply problematic president. But perhaps that is what the opposition really wants. It seems like it is entirely in the favour of the opposition if Jacob Zuma remain president, since they then have a perfect election platform. So excuse me for doubting whether the opposition is really trying to work for “we the people” even if that would make their election campaigns far more difficult. In short: I’m not quite convinced that parliament is divided between those who serve party political interests and those who serve the people. It seems like the lines are quite blurry, and that all parliamentarians are to some extend working for the good of their respective parties rather than for “we the people”. The latest impeachment debate is not necessarily an exception. Any civil society response will have to ask questions not only about this or that party, but about parliamentary processes which does not work for the good of people, but rather seek to score cheap party political points.
But obviously these are not the only reasons. My bigger concern is that the call for Zuma to fall seem to repeat the strange idea (strange for modern democracies) that the change of the individual at the “top” would somehow miraculously save a country. It’s either that if we just get the right guy at the top (whether Mmusi Maimane or Julius Malema) or if we can just get rid of the wrong guy at the top (in this case Jacob Zuma, with the default replacement being Cyril Ramaphosa) then somehow things will get right. But how can we belief this of a complex institution like a modern democracy?
Furthermore, this belief allow us to buy into a very easy civil society response. A clear call: “Zuma Must Fall!”, easily understandable (seen in the confusion around how exactly he must fall), easily visualized (ask the cartoonists) and something which seem attainable within the short term – let’s face it, getting civil society committed for the long haul is probably asking too much.
In the process we might risk not working for the really important things.
Focusing the problem on the fall of an individual assume that there really isn’t anything wrong with the presidency as such, with the checks and balances making sure that the presidency doesn’t overstep its function. It’s an argument that Jacob Zuma was really just an exceptionally bad guy, and that if we can get a better president, then all will be well. But perhaps we should ask whether we want a presidency with the power to tumble a country into so much trouble (I’ll get to the question on why we blame this on a single individual later)? Should we not rather mobilize civil society around some suggestions on how the presidency functions? How cabinet ministers are appointed?
But the focus on the fall of an individual has some other risks. Each Sunday Christians from a variety of traditions remind ourselves that the evil in this world, the injustice and oppression, is not only something “out there”, not only something found among a elect group of “purely evil people”, but something which we are all part of in some way or the other. We’ve all sinned, Christians confess. But our current public discourse seem to belief that the “innocent” are now calling for the fall of “prime evil” (even if individuals might not subscribe to this kind of theology – and a theology it is, even if secular). Apart from the excessive political metaphors (comparisons with PW Botha or Adolf Hitler or the likes) it also misses how we are tied into the injustice that lead to this point – and let’s just point out that those making the most noise are not necessarily the least tied to the maintenance of immense social problems in our country. It’s not simply that we’ve all participated in the “petty corruption” of South Africa, but that we’ve participated in building a culture of excessive greed – found in the lengths to which we go in order to acquire the symbols of wealth and power (the suburban home, expensive motor or overseas holidays, or the clothes burned in certain teenage rituals) to our tacit support of extreme inequality – the disingenuousness of calling out Zuma for the fact that South Africa is the most unequal country without explicitly asking questions about the processes through which the top 1%, 5% or 10% (gini-coeffient is usually calculated according to the top 10% if I’m not mistaken) attain and retain this wealth should leave us with immense discomfort.
But there is a flip side to the problem of a belief in our own innocence: we tend to create the perception of a part of a society which is ultimately “evil”. We’ve seen this over the past few days in the discourse associated not only with the president but with the ANC as a whole. When a well-known public figure describe the ANC (implying the entire movement) as a “spineless bunch of self-serving sycophants” then we should indeed react with some discomfort. Once we’re convinced that there is a single evil which should fall “at all costs” we risk allowing the inconceivable – such as soldiers questioning the presidency (look around you and see what happens when soldiers decide that perhaps it would be better if the president was removed!). While there has been moments in history where the language of excessive evil might have been appropriate, this is not it. This is a fairly well functioning democracy, and if we had any doubts about it, the past 5 months revealed this brilliantly, both in the reappointment of Pravin Gordhan as well as in the Constitutional Court judgement.
So beyond the question of the power of the presidency I would hope that civil society will start focusing on a number of other things.
We all love the Public Protector right now, and with good reason. But a new Public Protector will have to be appointed soon, and the brilliant ruling by the Constitutional Court through Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng made sure that the role of the Public Protector will be even more important in future. Civil Society should start mobilising to insure that the next Public Protector will have adequate funding and that whoever is appointed will be someone with integrity above reproach.
The presidency of Jacob Zuma has been shrouded by questions about the excessive power of the “security cluster”, harking back to some of the darkest days in the history of our country, as well as the undue influence of big capital. Marikana, Guptas, or the recent murder of Bazooka Rhadebe might all be examples of the intersection of these two forces. Civil society need to have some serious conversations about how we insure that our democracy is not run by either the powers of guns or capital.
We have to insist that the solution cannot simply be in the replacement of one president with another nor with one political party with another, but that we are committed to working for a well functioning democracy where we not only resolve the current problems (and problems we have) but where we insure that the chances that any such problems occur again are significantly reduced. Anything less is simply not good enough.
So, in order to not allow this crisis to go to waste, let’s insist that the anger of South Africans is not reduced to changing faces, but to building our democracy into something even more resilient – but if that is the goal, then I have to say, I don’t think we’re starting out from such a bad place. We seem to have a democracy which functions quite well.
But let’s also remain clear on one thing: Jacob Zuma should not be removed “at all cost”. There is indeed a cost which is too high. In the call for the removal of a president we can indeed legitimize things which will cause far more harm in the long run. Let’s always count the cost.