JUDITH FEBRUARY: Accountability must reign supreme in democracies


It’s been an interesting 10 days for the United States and for anyone who follows politics.

Just about everyone around the world was glued to their televisions sets or doom-scrolling through social media as the North American country ended its election cycle on 3 November.

It was always going to be messy and ugly. For months now, President Donald Trump has been setting up the "it’s been rigged" narrative. He did so because he was afraid of losing the election. Ironically, though Trump did not perform as badly as many commentators believed he would. "Never Trumper" and former GOP strategist Mike Murphy had, after all, said that America was ready to "cough Trump up" like an orange ball. That didn’t happen and at last count Trump had garnered in excess of 70 million votes - more than he did in 2016.

It does defy belief that so many Americans still believe in Trump when his presidency has been marked by lies and constitutional vandalism. But such is the nature of politics and populism.

As Cas Mudde, professor at the University of Georgia and the co-author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction, says: "An ideology like fascism involves a holistic view of how politics, the economy, and society as a whole should be ordered. Populism doesn’t; it calls for kicking out the political establishment, but it doesn’t specify what should replace it. Populists are dividers, not uniters. They split society into 'two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other,' and say they’re guided by the 'will of the people'. Populists view themselves and their cause as 'essentially moral'."

The genius of populism is its appeal to simple binaries as opposed to the often inconvenient slow work that dealing with complexity requires. Trump does not do complexity and has mastered the art of populism.

Yet, whatever strange theories Trump, Rudy Giuliani and the spineless GOP try to conjure up, Joe Biden will be sworn in as 46th President of the United States in January. Of course, the implications of Trump trying to delegitimise the election will have repercussions for American democracy long after he has exited stage left. The damage he has wrought to democratic institutions and public trust is extensive.

Amidst all the post-election lies and gas-lighting, it is easy to forget that Kamala Harris made history. As the daughter of immigrants, a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, Harris becomes the first black woman to ascend to the vice presidency. As European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen said, "she has broken multiple glass ceilings".

Should she end up in the White House one day, it may prove a fitting closure to the Trump era.

It is said that presidents campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Not Trump of course. The limitations of his imagination and his inability to be introspective don’t allow for that.

So, in a beautiful and quite different moment, hearing Joe Biden quoting his favourite poet, Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy was somehow refreshing.

It is probably worth quoting in full the lines Biden quoted, if only to usher in a new milieu:

"So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shoreIs reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term."

For Trump, Ed Luce, the Financial Times columnist, had this from Macbeth:

"Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

And so the Trump presidency will end, "full of sound and fury" as it began and dystopian to the very end.

However, as Stephanie Burt, the Harvard professor and literary critic has said, "Things don’t always get better immediately. Progress isn’t always preordained or linear, but sometimes things do get better, and times of conflict and sadness can find resting places that are not catastrophic."

For now, "not catastrophic" sounds just right.

Here in South Africa, we heard that a warrant of arrest was issued for ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule in relation to fraud and corruption arising out of the R255 million Free State asbestos eradication tender in 2014. Of course, Magashule has had corruption allegations swirling around him for years, specially too regarding the Estina dairy farm matter. On the latter, the Public Protector has provided Magashule with numerous free passes.

A warrant of arrest is not a conviction and we can fully expect the usual suspects within the ANC to come out in support of Magashule. This week, Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina, tweeted a picture of himself alongside Magashule captioned: "SG is us, we are SG. No retreat no surrender." How very sycophantic and strange to tie one’s identity to such a compromised strongman. But we should not be surprised. There were people who declared that they would "kill for Zuma" after all.

The essence of any democracy is that the powerful are held to account. No matter the noise Magashule and his supporters make ahead of his court appearances, his appearance in court is significant. In some way Magashule will have to account before a court and not his supporters.

As former President Jacob Zuma is eventually finding out, being an accused in a criminal trial is a lonely place to be.
We are also about to find out exactly how powerful Magashule is. The ANC in the Free State is already divided about its response to Magashule’s arrest. The initial Luthuli House statement regarding Magashule’s imminent arrest was somewhat muted yet the party has not asked Magashule to step down. This is despite the ANC recommitting itself to its 2015 resolution that, ‘“those accused of corruption and other serious crimes against the people, including those charged in courts, may be expected to step aside from their positions or responsibilities”.

The ANC is now taking legal advice on this. Again, none of this should surprise us. The ANC has always protected its own. It is why the party itself is in a state of dysfunction and it is why our country is still reeling after a decade of state capture.

One can only hope that the National Prosecuting Authority has a winnable case and that justice will not only be seen to be done but will eventually be done.

As 2020 courses its way to an end, President Cyril Ramaphosa for his part called the country to that now familiar family meeting about the COVID-19 pandemic. Ahead of the address there was all manner of speculation regarding a more intense lock down. This was never truly on the cards.

The bottom line is that while South Africa has experienced some localised spikes, nothing points to the need for a more intense lock down. Our recovery rate post-COVID-19 remains high and the economy needs to reopen urgently.
To that end, Ramaphosa did the sensible thing. South Africa remains on lockdown level one with travel and alcohol restrictions lifted.

Some balked at alcohol restrictions being lifted even as Ramaphosa warned South Africans not to gather in crowds at shebeens, bars and clubs. These events have become notorious super-spreaders of the virus.

The long and short of it is however that Ramaphosa understands that a festive season lockdown would not have been feasible in South Africa. While infection levels do not indicate the need to intensify the lockdown, Ramaphosa also knows only too well that South Africans move around during the festive season.

In what has been a strange and for many, a difficult year, most South Africans are already hatching festive season plans and mentally separating from 2020. The tinsel is up in stores around the country and the days are becoming warmer and longer. These small, comfortingly familiar signs have brought a little more normality to what has been a decidedly abnormal year.

The virus will be with us for a while yet. The state’s role is to be pragmatic about the steps it can put in place to prevent spikes. Despite all the constraints, it is doing so admirably.

Masking up, distancing and avoiding large super-spreader crowds is what is needed for now.

Until the vaccine arrives this will be, to use the cliché, the new normal.

Let us not be entirely joyless and hopeless as we navigate the pandemic and the responsibility with comes along with it. 2021 will have enough economic and political challenges of its own, after all.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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