[OPINION] Jacob Zuma: A president gone rogue

Hawks boss Berning Ntlemeza driving around Pretoria while being told off by the Minister of Police sort of sums up how completely absurd some of our politics is.

Democratic institutions are in disarray in South Africa. In many cases, almost too many to mention, serious breaches of accountability have made it very difficult for the constitutional aspiration of responsive and accountable governance to become a reality. In recent days the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) has filed court papers alleging the acting National Police Commissioner Kgomotso Phahlane was involved in several dubious car transactions. This forms part of a broader Ipid corruption probe against Phahlane.

Former SABC CEO Hlaudi Motsoeneng continues to act as head of the SABC despite court rulings that his appointment is invalid. Our Parliament has become a site of factional ANC struggle with the Speaker Baleka Mbete presiding over the House in the most compromised manner.

The recent Sassa grants debacle, however, probably stands out as the most scandalous example of corruption and untrammeled conflicts of interest simply because of the disregard the state showed for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

Of course, at the pinnacle of it all is the president, Jacob Zuma, who himself is corrupt and compromised. His conduct has set the example for some ministers and those within SOEs to act with impunity. The effects on governance when the "rules of the game" are consistently undermined are severe. It is for this reason that South Africa has been unable to meet its socio-economic challenges with the commitment required.

But when Zuma fired his then Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, his failure to account went a step too far. The president has now shown that he is prepared to "go rogue" and act outside of the bounds of reasonableness and to act purely in his own self-interest and in the interests of his corrupt associates. When Zuma fired Gordhan, no reasons were given apart from a kindergarten-like "intelligence report" which indicated that Gordhan was plotting against Zuma. Later, Zuma said that the relationship between him and Gordhan had broken down irretrievably. Why, he did not say.

It is the president’s prerogative to hire and fire Cabinet ministers. That prerogative must be exercised in an open, transparent and accountable manner. The Financial Intelligence Centre Bill (FICA) aimed at preventing money laundering passed through Parliament, yet Zuma has been dilatory in signing it. The insinuation has been that he is doing so to protect his friends, the Guptas.

So, in a situation where a president is prepared to act outside of ordinary democratic practice, when the rules are undermined, it becomes open season for those who would wish to follow suit. Potentially, therefore, South Africa risks becoming a state where the Constitution is adhered to only in the breach. It is easy in this political context to lose sight of the importance of democratic institutions and focus solely on the political actors who wield power in ways that are unaccountable.

Given the media coverage on corruption and also democratic processes, South Africans do have plenty of information at their disposal. How do we therefore "join the dots" between the information we have and a proper democratic outcome whether in relation to tender processes or appointments? Civil society vigilance is needed but this will require sustained action within communities so that activism is more targeted. It will also mean that creative ways will have to be found to link our common interests, between business, civil society and broader communities.

A revolution in good governance will need to start at the bottom. This takes time. It will also mean monitoring institutions such as Parliament far more closely and taking the public participation element far more seriously. That public participation, as set out in section 59 of the Constitution, extends to all areas of law making. The new trade union federation, the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), was formally constituted this past week at its founding congress. Led by former Cosatu secretary-general Zwelenzima Vavi, the federation has the potential to provide impetus for greater worker mobilisation. This will require focus and strategic leadership to prioritise workers’ issues.

South Africa is for all intents and purposes stuck in a political crisis and waiting for the ANC to fix itself, or indeed for its organisational renewal, is a luxury we can ill-afford. Citizen action will need to be sustained if the corruption and cronyism are to end. In addition, we have seen the rise of "fake news" even here in South Africa. The "Bell Pottinger" style campaign around "white monopoly capital", for instance, has shown us how far the president and his associates would go to muddy the waters between truth and lies. Several surrogates of dubious character have been used in this battle of untruth. A strong media delivering fact-based news is thus an essential cog in the wheel of a democratic society. It will play a big part in South Africa’s ability to retrieve itself once more.

Our focus, therefore, must be not to be distracted and to keep our eye on not just the personalities but to continue doing the work of strengthening our democratic institutions to ensure better governance and better outcomes for the most vulnerable.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february