We ignore what the Zuma years teach us at our peril
While state capture prosecutions are needed, we also need to understand what needs fixing
It is tempting in the glow that has followed Jacob Zuma’s resignation and Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as president to imagine that our woes are behind us, but to do so would be naïve. We would be ignoring the structural defects that the Zuma years we have so painfully exposed.
While Ramaphosa is clearly intent on fixing the symptoms of state capture, it is necessary too to treat the underlying defects that allowed it to occur. Some of this rot lies in the world of moral philosophy which even Ramaphosa will find difficult to solve, but there is much else that he can help fix.
Some of these fixes will be uncomfortable because they might require that we accept that our constitutional democracy, of which we are all so proud, may not be as perfect as we think it is. We may have dodged the deadliest bullet more by luck and the courage of a few good people than by design.Certainly, no one can argue convincingly that the intended oversight and check on power by the legislature over the executive has functioned effectively.
But to know how, and if, we need to fix these flaws we need to know what to fix.
The planned state capture inquiry would have been an ideal opportunity to apply a magnifying glass, not only to the specific cases which fall within its terms of reference, but also to the systemic issues which underlie it. This, alas, is outside of the scope of the inquiry for now and could, anyway, be handled through another process.
In many ways Zuma’s reign was an anomaly.
Who among our constitution’s drafters could have imagined a scenario in which one person would so singularly manage to corrupt their political party outside parliament, the party inside parliament, the cabinet and key institutions like the National Prosecuting Authority and the South African Revenue Service, to name but a few?
But, as anomalous as it may have been, there is no certainty it will not happen again.
It’s not like there weren’t plenty of warning signs either, as in the case of the appointment of the national director of public prosecutions which has been clouded in controversies, like that surrounding Vusi Pikoli, for instance, which predated the Zuma administration.
The problem is that vulnerabilities in the system often suit the corruptor, so why would a leader with ill intentions push for cracks in the system to be fixed when they can be so valuably exploited?The simple answer it that generally they won’t. The opportunity arises now for civil society, which has been so vocal and effective in the fight against the corruption of our state, to step up again and to examine, highlight and lobby for the changes that are needed to make us stronger.
There are encouraging signs that Ramaphosa recognises this too, flagging as he did in his state of the nation address the need to change the process of appointing members to the boards of state-owned enterprises.
While these boards were the grease that lubricated the theft of state resources to the pockets of the corrupt few, there are many other links in the chain that must be examined too.
For example, should the prerogative of the president to appoint his cabinet be as unfettered as it is now or should we follow the examples of other democracies which require some sort of confirmation process by the national assembly? Such a system would certainly have prevented the destructive late-night cabinet reshuffles to which Zuma subjected us and through which he was able to man the tiller of the state capture ship.Another example is the latitude handed to the president in appointing the chief justice of the country. At the moment the president can appoint any person who is “fit and proper” after consulting – but not necessarily with the agreement or consensus of – the Judicial Service Commission and leaders of parties in parliament.
Good fortune smiled on us that Zuma chose Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng whose courageous defence of judicial independence and oversight may well have been one of the few tenuous strands which held us back from plummeting over the precipice.
There are many more issues to be examined, including sharpening the teeth of parliament in its oversight function to fight the flagrant disregard which members of the executive, as demonstrated again this week by Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane, often show it.
No, today we stand at the crossroads of opportunity as we finally tackle state capture.
Those who have transgressed must pay the steepest price, but if we ignore the neon-lit warning billboard that flashes before our eyes then we are the foolish ones and we will deserve exactly what we get when our democracy is hijacked again.