More disdain for democracy as the president ducks the question

18 September 2011 - 03:06
By Mondli Makhanya

Over the past two months, I have religiously followed The Times's countdown to President Jacob Zuma's deadline to respond to the public protector's police lease report.

Each day, before reading anything else, I would check on the clock ticking down from 60 days. It was addictive stuff.

Then, one day, owing to space constraints on page one, the countdown didn't appear.

Like a heroin addict deprived of his fix, I went crazy. I considered slitting my wrist, leaping off a building or inflicting sharp pain on myself.

Okay, I'm stretching it here. None of that happened.

I actually just sent an SMS to the editor of The Times. Boring, right?

As the clock wound down to the single digits, excitement levels went through the roof.

Surely Zuma would defy all sceptics and actually beat the deadline, I would tell myself each morning. He would! He would!

Anyway, the deadline came and went, and the public protector was casually ignored. It was just another chapter in the life of a government that is increasingly showing disdain for institutions of democracy.

I should have tempered my expectations when I saw an interview with Minister of Public Works Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde on the eNews channel two weeks ago. She told eNews that she would rather explain everything to parliament because she had confidence that the ANC would hear her out and understand her side of the story.

In essence, what she was saying was that she had little faith in the public protector doing the right thing and that her comrades would offer her the protection she needed.

How right she was, as we discovered this week when ANC parliamentarians shielded Zuma from answering a legitimate and straightforward question on his missing of the deadline.

One would like to say this week's events marked a low point in the life of parliament. But I've learnt that because there have been so many low points and there will be many more in the life of our young republic, it is pointless to point them out.

For those who missed the dramatic scenes, Zuma was asked by an opposition MP to brief the House on progress on the report he had been studying for more than two months.

ANC MP Mike Masutha then jumped up and called for a point of order. And so the farce began.

"Any assertions that the minister committed illegal actions that have not been substantiated by any finding by anybody are out of order," he said.

Had he perhaps forgotten that the public protector had found the manner in which the leases were concluded "improper and unlawful"? That she had slammed the "reckless manner in which the DPW (Department of Public Works) dealt with public funds in this case, particularly by not following prescribed tender process without justification, not ensuring that the state received value for money fell short of the requirements of good governance and administration"?

Into the fray jumped Speaker Max Sisulu, who appeared conveniently ignorant of the workings of the office of the public protector. "These are allegations by the public protector. The minister has not been found guilty by any court of law," he said.

Mr Speaker, the public protector investigates and makes findings on allegations. She (or he) doesn't level allegations.

Then came ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga with this incredulous comment: "This has nothing to do with the president."

He, too, had conveniently forgotten that the public protector had recommended that action be taken against Nkabinde-Mahlangu and expressed the hope that the president would "do the right thing".

As this disturbing scene played out, Zuma was giggling. He giggled and giggled. For SIXTEEN minutes. I kid you not. When he was done giggling and his protectors were done shielding him, he gave a dismissive answer and moved on to other business.

The scene that played out in parliament on Tuesday was clearly contempt of the public protector and contempt of the institution of parliament.

Contempt was also in the air on Wednesday as the ANC Youth League and Umkhonto weSizwe Veterans' Association railed against Judge Colin Lamont's ruling on the Dubul' iBhunu struggle song.

The ruling, which is admittedly questionable and probably won't stand the test of a higher court, was used as a platform for an attack on the judiciary. Echoing the views of his seniors who have aimed heavy artillery at the judiciary, Julius Malema hinted that the framework of South Africa's constitutional democracy needed revisiting.

One doesn't want to be overly dramatic and prophesy the beginning of the end of the constitutional order. But when the leaders of our nation - including an intelligent and rational man like Sisulu- resort to mob tactics, you have to shiver.