[OPINION] President Zuma and democracy’s shame

In a country where there is so much in the public domain about our president and levels of corruption, we have almost become inured to that which should shock us. But this past week we again heard the name of Michael Komape. Michael was 6-years-old when he fell into the pit latrine at his school in Polokwane. He died, choking in faeces. The tragic incident happened in 2014 but there has been no resolution and no government department has taken responsibility for the incident. The family, aided by Section27, approached the Limpopo High Court for justice to be done and the trial will eventually commence on 13 November.

One therefore has to ask, “Is this a state that cares about the most vulnerable amongst us?” It’s hard to believe that is the case. This is a tragic and graphic example, but there are many others. The lack of accountability starts at the top of course, trite, as it is to say.

Last week President Zuma appeared before Parliament for a question and answer session that obfuscated more than it shed light. We witnessed yet another arrogant display of power from a man whose presidency has been nothing short of disastrous. He steadfastly refused to account for his legal fees in fighting the ‘spy tapes’ matter when he said, “This benefit is extended to all who are employed in the state … I do not keep records on litigation costs … it’s not my responsibility to pay for the litigations (sic) brought by political parties”. In Zuma’s world there is no accounting to the public for how he spends public money or on the issue of state capture.

Instead of holding Zuma to account, the ANC MPs shouted even louder in support of Zuma. But who is surprised that they do not demand answers regarding the mountain of state capture allegations against him? It’s what the ANC has become - a haven for the corrupt and inept. A party with repercussions only for those who dare to hold Zuma and his corrupt band of cronies to account. Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas to their credit stand as notable examples.

For now, Zuma knows that he acts without fear of consequence. The ANC speedily released a press statement lauding Zuma for appearing before Parliament. They missed the part where the Constitution compels Zuma to account to the people.

Whatever the ANC says, we see Zuma for who he is - the proverbial emperor with no clothes.

While Gigaba may try to dress up his Medium Term Budget Policy Statement MTBPS in the style of poet Ben Okri, the bottom line is that this is a state that has waged war on the very citizens it is meant to protect, the most vulnerable amongst us.

Zuma’s Social Development Minister, the thoroughly incoherent Bathabile Dlamini, has shown complete disregard for Parliament with several no-shows. When she finally appeared before Parliament, Dlamini provided no cogent reasons for her delay in implementing the Constitutional Court’s judgment in relation to Sassa and social grant payments. Again, there is neither care nor consequence, as Dlamini knows only too well. Her boss defended her in Parliament, after all. That Dlamini presides over one of the most critical ministries for those who are marginalised seems not to trouble anyone.

But if we are searching for further proof (as if Komape’s death is not enough proof) of the state’s callous disregard for the most vulnerable in our society then we need look no further than the tragedy that left more than 100 patients, many of them mentally ill, dead. These patients had been transferred to so-called NGOs once the Gauteng Department of Health had terminated the public-private partnership with Life Esidimeni hospital. What happened to them thereafter was the subject of a report by Health Ombudsman Malegapuro Makgoba. That report recommended an arbitration process that is being presided over by former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke.

One might think of no one else better suited to deal with the raw emotion as well as the complexity of what happened to these vulnerable patients. The stories are heart-wrenching, some patients loaded onto the back of vans as they were being transferred to ‘NGOs’ clearly not equipped to deal with the patients assigned to them. The former MEC for Health Qedani Mahlangu seemed missing in action when called to testify before Moseneke. The Life Esidimeni scandal stands equal to Marikana in its disdain for the victims and their families and in the scale of death at the hands of the state. It is democracy’s shame. But this we know is a government stacked with those who bear no shame for their actions.

The lack of care manifests itself in so many ways across our country each day. Enter most government buildings for an interaction with the state and it is almost inevitably a place of aesthetic horror and snaking queues of people with dead-eye stares often waiting for hours. Mostly, the service is slow and unsatisfactory. For those who are poor, the burden of poverty makes that wait and experience even worse.

Where is the state that is meant to care for the poor? The truth is that the carelessness starts at the very top; clichéd but true. If President Zuma cared for the poor and vulnerable, he would not deem it reasonable to spend hundreds of millions of rands on upgrades to his Nkandla home. If he cared he would not dismiss every question put to him in Parliament with evasion and a chuckle. If he cared, he would have fired Dlamini and Faith Muthambi and he would not have appointed a Minister of State Security who is now himself the subject of a criminal investigation.

And so the tragedy of a president who is unaccountable is that he takes the whole country sliding down with it and provides license to those who seek not to be held to account for their actions, whether within or outside of government.

We cannot and must not be silent in the face of a laughing president. But holding the powerful to account is a marathon, not a sprint. It also requires far more from us than easy disruption. It requires systematic challenges to power as Section27 and others are doing in the case of Life Esidimeni and Michael Komape and as Jacques Pauw has meticulously done in his brave new book The President’s Keepers. There are many others challenging power and often paying a high price for doing so. The private sector can no longer be immune from this activism. Turning a blind eye and hoping for the best outcome from those in power is not an option. In some quarters there are encouraging signs of corporate South Africa finding its voice even as it struggles when some of its own are partners in the state capture project.

South Africa is at an important crossroads – not for the first time - and it will require all of us to, perhaps uncomfortably, lift our heads above the parapet in ways that matter wherever we find ourselves.

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