Governance by impunity

The tinsel is up and faint strains of Deck the halls are being heard everywhere. The year is virtually at a close and it's pretty safe to say that this has been South Africa's very own 'annus horribilis'. Despite the fact that the ANC in government will try to convince us otherwise, there is no other way to describe a year marked by both a lack of leadership and accountability from our elected representatives and those in institutions meant to serve the public.

The year will be remembered mostly for the inability of the president to take some responsibility, _any _responsibility, for the extravagant expenditure on his private residence at Nkandla. Instead, what we have seen is bureaucrats being forced to take the blame for the excessive expenditure, an issue that has also brought Parliament to a crisis point.

It is clear now that Zuma believes he is above accounting to Parliament at all. The ad hoc committee on Nkandla has done the hatchet job on behalf of the president, exonerating him, ignoring the Public Protector's recommendation and misinterpreting the recent Western Cape High Court judgment regarding the powers of the Public Protector. Take a bow, Mathole Motshekga and Cedric Frolick; your future promotions are cemented, surely?

The opposition has called on the president to appear before Parliament to answer questions, yet it seems clear that he will not do so given that the business of Parliament has come to a close for the year. A 'deal' was supposedly struck between Cyril Ramaphosa as leader of government business and the opposition regarding the conduct of opposition MPs in Parliament and the president's refusal to attend question time.

But one has to ask what the purpose of such a 'deal' was going to be? The opposition is calling for the president to come to Parliament, as required by the rules and in line with his constitutional obligations. Why should a deal have to be brokered at all regarding this? The Speaker of Parliament should simply call on the president to account and fulfill his obligations. In any event though the 'deal' is off, a signal of just how divided the ANC is internally and how the centre seems incapable of holding despite Ramaphosa's efforts. Whether this says anything about his future presidential prospects is a question for another day.

But the lack of accountability from the president has had a further knock-on effect on other state institutions. With impunity, those in charge at SAA and the SABC have lied about their academic qualifications and seem to have enough political cover to do so unashamedly and drag these public institutions down with them. The SA Post Office has had to be bailed out despite the Minister of Finance calling for the tightening of belts. Why? Mostly because of corruption and mismanagement. And so one could continue with tales of poor governance and mismanagement so evident.

Probably the biggest casualty of Jacob Zuma's 'strongman' politics is the degree to which the legitimacy of Parliament has been eroded. The Speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete, and also ANC party chairperson, has presided over the House as if she is there solely to protect the interests of the president and the ANC. It is obvious to everyone but the ANC that her position is untenable. We have seen police being called into Parliament to break up near fisticuffs. No MP should break the rules of Parliament and in this regard some opposition party MPs are certainly not without blame. Yet, it is the duty of the Speaker to preside in a non-partisan fashion and to contain any situation presented.

So much for Parliament representing the people and so much for democratic deliberation. No one has taken political responsibility for calling in the police recently and no one has taken responsibility for cutting the feed when the action occurred.

Again, despite calls from the media and civil society for responsibility to be taken, in all likelihood no one will be moved to do so. The culture of impunity is near embedded.

The scene, which probably summed up the near-thuggery which we have now had to accept, was the YouTube video detailing Minister of Small Business, Lindiwe Zulu, sparring verbally with an EFF MP and wanting to 'take it outside'. Zulu at first denied the incident but then backtracked when the video was made public on YouTube. To describe Zulu's conduct as disgraceful and indicative of grave intellectual poverty is an under-statement. As a cabinet minister she ought to have known better. She is after all representing a party which won a more than sizeable majority at an election in May, as compared to the EFF's 1 million votes garnered in the same contest. That Zulu believed such conduct is acceptable indicates a limited understanding of the contest of ideas in a democracy but it also shows a thin-skinned insecurity that has become the hallmark of the ruling party. Of course she ought to be disciplined for her conduct but nothing of the sort is likely to happen.

This conduct is par for the course when defending Zuma and the networks of patronage that he represents.

The abnormal is therefore becoming normal, as we have lurched from 'Guptagate' to Nkandla and everything in between. Our capacity for absorbing poor governance seems endless.

Next week will mark a year since Madiba's passing. As we watched in disbelief as police entered the Parliamentary precinct and Mbete defending such action as 'protecting Parliament', it took one back to an old image of Madiba, moving across the aisle and shaking the hand of then leader of the opposition, Tony Leon. A true democrat, Madiba understood the meaning of debate and of trying to convince one's opponent by improving your argument.

But we have moved very far away from the ideals that Madiba stood for when governance by impunity now seems to have become the order of the day.

It therefore seems too much to ask that those in Zuma's cabinet with any regard for Madiba's legacy stand up and speak up against the erosion of Constitutional principles.

A sign of the Zuma milieu we are in.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).