[OPINION] Is Zuma immune to moral appeals?

Former President Motlanthe resurrected Ahmed Kathrada’s appeal to President Zuma to step down as president of the country when he read Kathrada’s letter at his funeral. It was clear from the response of the overwhelming majority who attended Kathrada’s funeral that his moral appeal to Zuma was widely shared. Zuma’s response - or rather his lack of response - came as no surprise. Once more he just ignored Kathrada’s appeal.

Kathrada’s moral appeal to Zuma to step down is just one of a growing number of similar appeals since the Constitutional Court finding on Nkandla. These appeals are coming both from within, and from outside the ANC. Up till now, it seems that these appeals have had no effect or impact. Instead it seems that the total lack of response by Zuma to these appeals only contributed to a greater sense of moral despair, and to the demoralisation of South Africans.

For any moral appeal to succeed there are a number of preconditions that must be met. Firstly, the person making the appeal and the person to whom the appeal is directed must share the same values. Secondly, both parties must be willing to subject themselves to these shared values and norms. Thirdly, the person to whom the appeal is directed should change their behaviour should the appeal be considered to be a legitimate one.

Should the person to whom a moral appeal is directed not subscribe to the values underpinning the moral appeal, the appeal simply fails to resonate with the person to whom the appeal was directed. The moral appeal simply doesn’t stick, and is ignored.

The latter seems to be what has been happening to the moral appeals by Kathrada, Motlanthe and various others who appealed to Zuma to do the right thing, and step down as president of the country. Instead of retiring to Nkandla, Zuma stays put.

This situation inevitably raises the question as to whether there is any compelling reason for Zuma to respond to these moral appeals. Doesn’t he have the right to turn his back on these appeals because he simply doesn’t share the values on which these appeals are based?

But this is exactly where the problem lies. The assumption made by people like Kathrada, Motlanthe and other ANC leaders is that there is indeed a set of shared values in the ANC. These values guided the ANC through the freedom struggle, and into the new democratic dispensation. These values were personified by struggle heroes such as Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, and many others. It is to these shared values of the ANC tradition that people within the ANC appeal when they ask Zuma to step down. The people lodging these moral appeals are convinced that Zuma is not only contradicting these shared values, but is also actively undermining these values.

However, it is not only members of the ANC who have moral ground to stand on when making a moral appeal to Zuma. In fact, all other South Africans have moral ground for making such an appeal. Our Constitution gives every South African the moral right to make such an appeal. It is underpinned by a set of values that all South Africans should honour. In the first article of our Constitution these values are identified as being among others, respect for the dignity and equality of all persons, respect for the Constitution and the rule of law, non-racialism, accountability and openness.

The Constitution further dictates that the president must not only respect the Constitution and the values underpinning it, but that he should also always act in the best interest of the country. Article 96 of the Constitution specifically places an obligation on the president not to abuse his position for private gain, and requires the President and members of the Executive to avoid conflicts of interest.

This implies that all South Africans stand on solid moral ground, when they make moral appeals to the president and other political leaders to honour the common values on which our Constitution is based. They have the moral right to call on political office bearers to stop abusing their positions and powers for private gain.

It is increasingly clear that Zuma has no intention to honour the moral appeals directed to him by leading figures in the ANC. It is equally clear that appeals by concerned citizens from across a wide spectrum of our society will not stop him from harming the values underpinning the constitution, and the values underpinning his oath of office.
With the prospect of another motion of no-confidence in the President looming in Parliament, it is clear that such as motion has no chance of success, unless a substantial number of ANC Members of Parliament have the courage to stand up for the ethical values in our Constitution that they committed to defend when they took their oath of office.

It is, however, ironic that ANC parliamentarians are reminded in the media that it is in their own self-interest to support the motion of no-confidence in the President. They are reminded that if they allow Zuma to stay on as President until the end of his term in 2019, the ANC might suffer losses in the 2019 elections, which, in turn, might cost some of them their seats in Parliament.

Instead of appealing to ANC Members of Parliament to protect the values of the ANC and the values underpinning our Constitution, an appeal is now being made to support the motion of no-confidence on the basis of their self-interest. Could this appeal to their self-interest be an indication that there is no longer any public trust in members of the ANC to stand up for the values of the ANC and the values of the Constitution in a no-confidence vote in Parliament?

Shortly after the former Minister of Finance was fired last week by the president, he indicated that his conscience will guide him should a vote of no-confidence be brought before Parliament. Is it asking too much from other members of the ANC in Parliament to stand up for the values of the once proud ANC, and for the values enshrined in our Constitution, when they vote for the motion of no-confidence?

Professor Deon Rossouw is CEO of The Ethics Institute.