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[OPINION] A lament for the state of our democracy

_‘But though the Republic, when it came to us, was like a beautiful painting whose colours, however, were already fading with age, our own time has not only neglected to freshen it by renewing the original colours, but has not even taken the trouble to preserve its configuration and, so to speak, its general outlines..’ - _Cicero De Republica 5.1.2

Written between 54-51BC, Cicero’s De Republica was part lament for the state of the Roman Republic and part discussion of forms of government and justice. At that time, the Romans were involved in several wars abroad, Caesar was conducting his campaigns in Gaul, citizens were rioting and by 49BC Caesar would cross the Rubicon and be made dictator for the first time.

The story of the Late Roman Republic is, in essence, a tragic one. The decay Cicero consistently speaks of eventually led to its demise and Augustus as emperor with complete control of the State. While, of course, the Roman Republic was organised very differently to what we might imagine as a modern constitutional arrangement, there might well be some lessons from history for modern-day constitutional democracies and state decline, not least of all, our own.

The Roman constitution was not something that was clear-cut and ‘designed for purpose’ in the manner of modern-day constitutions, rather it evolved according to the needs of the day. The roots of the Roman Republic are in the monarchy of its founder, Romulus, transitioning to kingship ending in the expulsion of Tarquin the Proud, leading to a mixture of monarchy and aristocracy following the secession of the plebeians in 493, which led to arrangements with some ‘democratic’ elements with the establishment of the senate and the office of consul.

Tracing South Africa’s journey to democracy, one can find almost as many detours before we arrived at 1994 and our negotiated settlement. That settlement was flawed, yet it brought civil and political rights, if not the economic emancipation that many had hoped for. As decades wore on, the Roman Republic was equally vulnerable to the corruption, abuse of power, patronage, the use of state resources for private gain and indeed, decline.

Cicero’s lament for the ‘already fading’ colours of the Republic may be our lament for the state of our democracy as we contemplate a political week in which the essence of a state which has gone ‘rogue’ has been laid bare. How do we in this context ‘renew the colours’ of our Constitution and take care to ‘preserve its configurations’ and ‘general outlines’? Cicero, in fact, was prescient since the Roman Republic slid into empire and autocracy by 23BC.

Despite Jacob Zuma’s corrupt presidency and its assault on the rule of law, South Africa’s Constitution has held up and our ConCourt has shown itself able to withstand political pressure. Part of Cyril Ramaphosa’s ‘new dawn’ (itself now a tired phrase) is about restoring our initial commitment to constitutional values; those of human dignity, transparency, accountability and openness. The Zuma years all but abandoned those values. Despite Ramaphosa’s slim victory at Nasrec however, some far-reaching steps have been taken to restore some of the ‘colours of our constitution.’

Apart from important and necessary changes at the Finance and Public Enterprises ministries, the suspension of Sars commissioner Tom Moyane was significant. Ramaphosa’s letter of suspension minced no words when he expressed his lack of confidence in Moyane. Moyane has stated his intention to take legal action and Ramaphosa’s letter also foreshadows that.

It is about time someone dealt with the Sars issue head-on. Tax morality is a crucial cornerstone of any democracy, but especially a country like ours with such low rates of employment.

National Director of Public Prosecutions Shaun Abrahams must surely be next? Despite trying to redeem himself by charging Zuma, the finding of his conscience seems to be opportunistic, to say the least. To truly redeem our Constitution, the prosecuting authority must act without fear or favour. Abrahams has been trimming his sails according to the political winds.

And so to Zuma’s trial where the ANC has formally said it will not support those who face criminal charges by attending proceedings and flaunting party regalia. The ANC Youth League in KwaZulu-Natal, however, seem to have different ideas, as does the National Funeral Practitioners’ Association. Both are trying to hatch plans to support Zuma at the trial, as if we have not had quite enough of Zuma playing the victim. His project of state capture requires that he perpetuate this myth. Yet, the law must take its course and apply to Zuma as it does to everyone else. He has, in any event always sought his day in court.

But patronage is nothing new under the sun. In Cicero’s world, amicitia (‘friendship’- between those in power and others) was a near institution and what started out as part of the fabric of Roman life quickly became sullied by corruption and abuse of the patron-client relationship in the worst form. The nobility controlled political institutions through their networks of friends and clients ‘amicitia became a weapon of politics, not a sentiment based on congeniality’. And Roman friendships continually evolved as a ‘web of expectations and obligations’, creating an environment ripe for abuse, specifically during the period of Rome’s expansion abroad that created many opportunities for such misuse of patronage.

All sounds too familiar?

Undergirding the values of the Constitution is the next ‘struggle’ we are engaged in. It is one that pits those who would destroy the state for their own narrow gain directly against those who seek to build a country where those in power are accountable and responsive to the citizenry.

It will take a renewed vision and commitment to rebuild that which has been broken during the Zuma years specifically.

Our Constitution and the institutions that undergird it have held up bravely even under immense political pressure.

The lessons of Cicero’s lament for the decay and decline of the Late Republic should, however, not be lost on us.

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