[OPINION] President Zuma’s new form of tyranny

The ANC is hurtling towards its elective conference in December. From the outside looking in it is messy. The party is busy tearing itself apart as a result of dysfunction and corruption.

President Zuma, for his part, continues as if every allegation of state capture, every finding by the Public Protector and every accusation from those within the ANC who still have some ethical fibre are fabrication and lies. Some lies he claims are spread by ‘white monopoly capital’, others by the media or those who want ‘regime change’.

We watch in disbelief as witness after witness comes before Parliament describing how the Guptas have captured Eskom and the Minister of Public Enterprises, Lynne Brown. Brown has hit back, saying she takes instructions from no one. Mounting evidence in the public domain seems to indicate that Brown has an economic relationship with the truth. Just like her boss and many of her Cabinet colleagues. South Africa waits for the day when the reckoning will finally be done and those who have sold our country down the river for a dime are held to account. For now, though, that will not happen. Shaun Abrahams, Zuma’s lackey at the NPA, will see to that.

Zuma is becoming increasingly desperate and will do anything - even bring down the state - to avoid prison.
He is a dangerous man.

This week we were again reminded exactly how dangerous. We have reached another urgent inflection point in our democracy. It is akin to the crisis point we reached when Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas were fired in the dead of the night. It came when deputy director-general and head of the National Treasury Budget Office Michael Sachs resigned.

That a fine, thoughtful and respected public servant like Sachs has resigned should send a chill down all our spines. This is because of what the resignation represents.

After pressure from rights groups, Zuma finally released the Heher Commission report into the funding of higher education. The delay has been untenable, specifically given that vice-chancellors have been left to carry the full burden of instability on campuses this past year. But it now transpires that Zuma’s reasons for the sudden release of the report may well be inspired by rather more cynical manipulation. In the mould of a typical populist, Zuma seems to have asked the National Treasury to find ways to fund free higher education. What is astounding is that this was before the release of the Heher Report and after the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement was released late last month. He has also skilfully usurped some of Treasury’s powers through the establishment of a Presidential Fiscal Committee, thus creating his own parallel budget processes.

Reports are that Zuma was following the recommendation of one Morris Masuthu who suggested offering free higher education while cutting other public services. Masuthu is not part of the Treasury and is linked to the Zuma family. He has no discernible qualifications to intervene on policy, surely?

The mistaken narrative peddled by some is that Sachs has resigned because he does not believe in the principle of free higher education. Anyone who is familiar with Sachs’ work would know that the matter is more complex than that. Rather, word has it that Sachs has resigned because proper budgeting protocol was, and is, being broken.

To put this in context one has to understand the painstaking work that former Treasury Director-General Maria Ramos and successive Directors-General and Finance Ministers have put into establishing proper budgetary procedures. South Africa has, over the past 23 years, consistently been lauded by the global Open Budget Index for transparency in his budgeting process. It was Trevor Manuel who introduced the Medium Term Expenditure Framework and also the concept of consulting with ministers before government commits to expenditure. Every budget is about priorities, after all. The Presidential Fiscal Committee will doubtless be used by the unaccountable Zuma to shroud decision-making processes that affect expenditure. And who will hold this small cabal accountable if Treasury is excluded? And how then do we have faith in the numbers the Minister of Finance presents to Parliament?

Undermining Treasury in such a way was a reckless act and there has now been further obfuscation. In the way of a typical populist, Zuma will use free higher education in the same way Roman politicians used the ‘panem et circenses’ (‘bread and games’) in the Colosseum to appease a restive populace. Surely one cannot oppose the noble goal of free higher education, Zuma might say?

Sachs’ resignation is about a principled man taking a stand against the president’s reckless interference in budget processes. Our country needs to have an evidence-based policy discussion on the funding of higher education. That needs to happen with the Heher Report in hand. But there is every indication that Zuma intends to simply ignore that process. And it is such arbitrariness that makes him dangerous. How do we deliberate carefully in a democracy when the head of state acts so unaccountably and deliberately undermines a commission report that he himself requested?

In the prologue to their new book Enemy of the People, authors Adriaan Basson and Pieter du Toit ask poignantly, “How did a man who swore on 9 May 2009 that he would commit himself ‘to the service of our nation with dedication, commitment, discipline, integrity, hard work and passion’ come to embody everything that is wrong with South Africa?” They go on to say; “…Zuma and his circle of rogue protectors broke not only the country’s spirit and moral fibre, but also our hearts”.

How true that is. For possibly the most poignant parts of the book are those dealing with the axing of two fine men - former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his predecessor Nhlanhla Nene. One can only read these pages and cry for our beloved country. The book provides devastating detail on how Sars was captured and then how Treasury’s defences were breached. Former Director-General Lungisa Fuzile is quoted heavily. He describes how he tried to bravely hold the fort after Nene was fired and how Des van Rooyen’s three lackeys - and let us remember their names: Mohamed Bobat, Ian Whitley (son-in-law of Jessie Duarte, the ANC deputy secretary-general) and Malcolm Mabaso - arrived asking for access to Treasury files on SAA and took over the office of Malcolm Geswint, Nene’s former chief of staff.

Fuzile describes being given instructions by Van Rooyen to ‘arrange access cards’ for the three men despite the fact that no protocol had been followed. Fuzile, is in his words, ‘flabbergasted.’ Of course, the rest is history but Fuzile’s account of Gordhan’s return is equally filled with emotion and then contrasted by the cowardly act when Zuma eventually fires Gordhan.

South Africa has felt the long hand of tyranny before and tried to build something new on the ash-heap of apartheid. Now, we have Zuma and a new form of tyranny. He is truly an enemy of the people and of the Constitution.

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