Zuma: Fit to govern?

Mervyn E. Bennun writes on the ANC NEC's shameful failure to act against the President

In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams (said to be the second of his science-fiction satirical trilogy in five volumes starting with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the author reflects on the ambitions of Zaphod Beeblebrox to be President of the Galaxy:

"The major problem - one of the major problems, for there are several – one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well known fact, that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.  To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.  To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem."

And here ends all humour, for there is nothing fictional about South Africa and Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa and of the ANC, and determined to remain thus.

I, on the other hand, have been a rank and file member of the ANC for about fifty years and am just about to turn eighty-one years old. Beyond my claim to have been at all times loyal, my record is for others to comment on and I will neither don a hair shirt nor blow my own trumpet. However, the movement calls me a veteran and as such I am one of those who signed the Veterans’ and Stalwarts’ Declaration because of my distress at the state of the ANC.

I have no right to speak on behalf of other signatories. I do not claim to do so.

When I read the Veterans’ and Stalwarts’ Declaration, there were already over one hundred signatories. Ben Turok, one of them, wrote that this public declaration of no confidence in the ANC’s leadership was ‘..... no rank-and-file rebellion. Many of these veterans held high office, as ministers, senior public servants or were top leaders in the party’s national executive committee. Many are well-known public figures, like Ahmed “Kathy” Kathrada, who remained reticent on their misgivings about the direction the country was taking in recent years, but are now outspoken about their concern’. They are amongst the bravest and wisest of the ANC. Some of them I know personally and, as a rank and file member myself, I see them as leaders and my role models.

I now learn that in the opinion of President Zuma.we are not ‘real veterans’. So we must be sham veterans, bogus veterans, pseudo-veterans, counterfeit veterans, imitation veterans, mock veterans, ersatz veterans. How my co-signatories of the Veterans’ and Stalwarts’ Declaration react to being defined by the president of our movement as ‘not real veterans’ is up to them. I regard the insult as creating an opportunity to comment on him who said it.

In the same speech, Zuma equated the birth of Jesus, who came to cleanse the world of its sins, with the ANC’s birth to liberate the oppressed. ‘No one can stop us because we have God on our side – He’s on our side! When the ANC was formed, there were religious leaders present who thanked the Lord for delivering to them the people’s movement.......The people have been liberated now – hence the ANC will rule until Jesus comes back to save us’. He repeated this a few weeks later: ‘The ANC is on the side of the people and God is on the side of the ANC. We cannot lose’.

This is sinister drivel. Even the most brutal, ruthless and inhumane regimes claim divine approval for themselves, but what are the criteria by which one makes the right choice between all those who claim to speak for God? If we have a democracy and free, secure and credible elections then the ANC will be returned to power so long as the majority votes for it. But what will happen if it seems that the ANC faces defeat in an election? How will God’s will be served then?

There is already menace in the air. Zuma and the Cabinet decided to allow Al-Bashir to leave South Africa in defiance of a High Court order that he should be detained until the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and South Africa’s obligations under the Treaty of Rome had been determined.

The reason given in Parliament for this defiance of the Constitution, and the solemn oaths of office of the President and cabinet ministers to defend it, was that it served ‘peace and stability’ better to allow al-Bashir to depart than to observe justice under the law and Constitution as pronounced by the High Court.

Apparently we now have a constitutional convention that, if in the opinion of the government of the day ‘peace and stability’ are best served if justice under the law and the Constitution of South Africa are set aside, then this may be done. If Zuma’s words mean anything, the electoral defeat of the ANC would defy the will of God and thus endanger ‘peace and stability’.

It would then be necessary to disregard the election result and set aside the Constitution and the rights it establishes and protects. This would not be a State of Emergency with the safeguards set out in the Constitution, for the entire Constitution would have been set aside to comply with the revealed will of God .

If this is so, then we seem to have had a quiet coup d‘etat.

Under the democratic Constitution we have held successful, free, and fair elections and that the results have been respected. This predicts but does not guarantee that the same will happen in future – why should South Africa be immune from what God apparently wanted elsewhere in Africa? The murderous violence that accompanied the local elections in 2016 signals the need for vigilance, and Zuma’s words do not inspire confidence: he has already said explicitly that his first loyalty is to the ANC and not the Constitution of South Africa.

At the ANC’s National Executive Committee meeting in November 2016 when a motion of no confidence in Jacob Zuma was moved, there was no attempt to deny the events which have so tarnished his image. However, the Secretary General explained that by ‘consensus’ the decision was taken not to request Jacob Zuma to step down from his post as President of the ANC.

Having previously called on members to avoid divisive behaviour ahead of the 2017 conference, he explained that the matter had not been voted on. ‘The NEC of the ANC has never voted on any issue. Members persuade one another to the point of consensus.’

This is an abuse of the concept, and a cynical distortion of the process, of reaching decisions by consensus. It is not the ANC’s practice as I learned it during my years of membership. I learned that we call each other ‘comrade’ to show respect and loyalty, and try to reach decisions by discussing matters in an effort to reach full agreement without a vote, because this affirms the unity and strength of the ANC. Sometimes the process is arduous: one senior member, Pendula Gawe, once described it to me as ‘democracy by exhaustion’.

The essence of a decision by consensus is that, as a debate proceeds, it becomes obvious that there is broad agreement in favour of one result which all present can support, even if it is not the preferred choice of each individual.

In the ANC, when finally bringing discussion to a conclusion, we trust the skill and sensitivity of the Chairperson to ensure that dissent is not regarded as dishonourable, and the process of persuasion towards agreement strengthens our bonds. The word ‘comrade’ means much to us and carries a long history of mutual affection, respect and trust.

In his recent book We, the People Albie Sachs writes about the process of principled dialogue that we took from our ANC tradition into democracy: ‘It taps into the African spirit of bringing parties together so that in the context of constitutional values they can talk, talk, talk their way to a realisable and sustainable consensus”.

But never before in the history of the ANC have we been faced with a situation in which its president has brought such disgrace and dishonour to the movement. Who of us, in the most bitter nightmare at any time over more than a century of our proud history, would ever have imagined that the President of the ANC acting in his solemn role as President of South Africa would be found by the Constitutional Court to have failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution we fought for? Would any of us have imagined that such a person would be a blatant liar in the conduct of the affairs of the State?

There cannot have been a ‘consensus’ on the rejection of the call on Zuma to vacate the office of President. It was supported by at least three cabinet ministers (Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom,  Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi) and the ANC’s Chief Whip in Parliament (Jackson Mthembu) apart from many other NEC members.

The NEC was obviously deeply divided but it really does not matter on which side the majority fell: those who supported the motion may in fact have been the minority. The chairperson at the meeting, presumably Baleka Mbete, used the nonsense of a ‘consensus’ to deny a proper conclusion to an unprecedented disagreement in order to impose the outcome preferred by those whose interests lie in defending Jacob Zuma.

It was a cowardly and undemocratic stratagem to avoid a vote under circumstances unique in the history of the ANC. A procedural device was used by those holding power who were determined to protect Zuma.

The ANC’s deputy secretary, Jessie Duarte, described the outcome of the NEC meeting by admitting that a ballot was asked for, but not agreed to. ‘When we reached consensus it meant an idea was put forward for discussion but did not have sufficient support. There was no contradiction. Nobody stood up and said “no, that's not what happened”’.

This is simply evasive, feel-good gibberish to create a spurious aura of unity. What would constitute ‘sufficient support’? What was not being contradicted? Under what circumstances would a vote be allowed? Must there be near-unanimity before vote can be taken? Those who rammed a spurious ‘consensus’ onto the meeting did so for they feared defeat, for lurking behind the smoke and mirrors was the menacing and real possibility of the success of a motion of no confidence.

That there was no consensus is further shown by the hostility, publicly stated, directed at those who took the initiative and who called for Jacob Zuma to resign, to themselves resign from their ministerial posts. Zuma’s supporters on the NEC have demanded that Gordhan and Hanekom in particular must be dismissed. This is hardly unifying, consensus-based conduct.

Evidence that there was no consensus comes from the ranks of the ANC’s top leaders themselves. Denis Goldberg, one of the Veterans and Stalwarts, circulated a letter to the group pointing out that Mantashe, the Secretary General, was present when Frank Chikane read out the Veterans’ and Stalwarts’ submission to the ANC in the presence of Jacob Zuma himself. Zuma thereafter told the KwaZulu ANC Youth League that nobody had told him what he had done wrong. Denis Goldberg does not mince his words; he asks bluntly whether Mantashe stood up ‘and said “no Zuma, you were told and you do know. You use an unending stream of court processes to overcome your wrongdoing”? Of course not! Did we say: Zuma you are a liar? Perhaps we see this as impolite! Lying and getting away with it is more dangerous than not being polite’!

When politicians scrabble, scratch and grope through desperate strategies they lose their dignity and become dangerous. The incident will not look good when the history of these times comes to be written.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Mantashe, Duarte, and other leaders may claim to be satisfied with the outcome but the cost of avoiding an honest and clear decision one way or the other is a blow at the unity of the ANC. For all the world to see, the ANC’s current leadership is proudly content with a shamefully discredited president and proclaims the success of his defence to be a triumph. Strangely, there is no claim that Jacob Zuma has been unjustly accused.

According to News24, Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana was said to have argued before the NEC that the party ‘had emerged wounded and split’ after former president Thabo Mbeki was recalled and warned that they should not do it again. What he claims needs consideration.

In fact, if one looks at the Mbeki episode then just the opposite conclusion should be drawn – the unity and health of the ANC depends on the removal of Jacob Zuma.

The 2008 decision of Judge Nicholson in the Pietermaritzburg High Court which was used as a pretext to recall President Mbeki was overruled by the Appeal Court in 2009, in a case which is therefore apparently unmentionable in ANC circles. In fact, this decision is one of the most important judgements on the role of the NPA and explains some of the basis on which all prosecutions are conducted in South Africa.

The Appeal Court was unanimous in shredding Justice Nicholson’s decision in the Pietermaritzburg High Court. In briefest summary, the Appeal Court pointed out that because the State President heads the Executive, one may assume that Thabo Mbeki knew all about the proposed prosecution of Zuma, but the matter was for the NPA to decide on the basis of whether there was a reasonable prospect of success before a criminal court. The NPA’s published policies state this clearly.

In point of law it doesn’t matter a tinker’s damn whether or not Mbeki knew about the proposed prosecution, or what he thought about it if he did. The court said that ‘A prosecution is not wrongful merely because it is brought for an improper purpose. It will only be wrongful if, in addition, reasonable and probable grounds for prosecuting are absent, something not alleged by Mr Zuma and which in any event can only be determined once criminal proceedings have been concluded’.

The Appeal Court pointed out that the motive behind a prosecution is irrelevant – the best motive does not cure an otherwise illegal prosecution and the worst motive does not render an otherwise legal prosecution illegal.

After all, whether or not they are victims of crimes, people generally feel little affection for the alleged offenders when laying charges against them – they commonly even exert themselves to bring great misfortune on those whom they accuse.

If President Mbeki had reason to suspect that Jacob Zuma might have committed the crimes with which he was charged, he was obliged by his presidential oath to protect the Republic of South Africa to draw the attention of the National Prosecuting Authority to these matters – he would, in fact, have been obliged to ‘meddle’ as it was said that he had done.

The Appeal Court also pointed out that in any event there was no evidence to the effect that Mbeki had a hand in the prosecution of Jacob Zuma anyway.

The lesson from the wrongful removal of President Mbeki is exactly the opposite of what Minister Senzeni Zokwana, quoted above, said. The Constitutional Court’s findings against Jacob Zuma make his continued presidency of the ANC and of the State a shameful defiance of political reason and constitutional justice. What makes Jacob Zuma immune and impervious to the consequences of the court’s findings of the utmost gravity?

Despite taking the presidential oath by the God he invokes so readily, he failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution we fought for. Why would it be wrong to lay a charge of treason against him?

The lesson to be drawn from what was done to Thabo Mbeki and the damaging consequences is that Jacob Zuma must go. It is to the further and continuing disgrace of the ANC and South Africa that Zuma remains in those positions.

The Appeal Court’s observation that Zuma made no claim that the corruption charges he faces are without foundation resonates exactly with the silence today of his supporters on the same theme. What sort of argument is it to claim that it is better to retain him as president of both the ANC and the State, because removing someone so dishonourable would harm both?

Following the local government elections in August 2016s, Gwede Mantashe said that the NEC had resolved that it should take collective responsibility for the ANC’s disappointing performance. He said that ANC had to start ‘with a serious objective and robust introspection within the movement itself, starting with the leadership at all levels’.

There is a political culture in South Africa that, as long as one uses the correct cliché, then no further evidence of one’s righteousness is needed. Good citizens prove their compassion by referring to ‘the poorest of the poor’, and when addressing crime they demonstrate their stern rectitude by demanding ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘the full might of the law’, for ‘enough is enough’.

So it appears now with reference to the state of the ANC as perceived by leaders such as Mantashe, for his words have become a part of that banal canon.

Mantashe was one of the ANC’s team (the others were Jacob Zuma, Kgalema Motlanthe,  Thandi Modise, Matthews Phosa and Baleka Mbete) which could not wait to demand Thabo Mbeki’s resignation following the judgement of the Pietermaritzburg High Court. I would relish cross-examining them in the witness box on their claim that Mbeki engineered the prosecution of Jacob Zuma. After all, a successful prosecution requires prosecutors to do something more than shout and throw their ball-point pens at the accused. Did they really believe that, to ensure that Zuma would be convicted, Mbeki had perjured himself and was involved in suborning witnesses, forging documents, corrupting judges and securing bent lawyers in a boiling stew of incitement and conspiracies?

The outrage of Mantashe et al when, with Mbeki’s support as an intervening party, the NPA decided to appeal against the balderdash in Judge Nicholson’s judgment was founded in the same fear of losing as the ‘consensus’ debacle described above. Lose they did, and South Africa and the ANC have paid the price since then.

The ‘top six’ now consists of Jacob Zuma‚ Cyril Ramaphosa‚ Baleka Mbete‚ Jessie Duarte, Zweli Mkhize – and, of course, Mantashe himself still in the role of Secretary-General. What price ‘collective responsibility’ and ‘robust introspection within the movement itself, starting with the leadership at all levels’ when every effort is made to protect the person who benefited – as it was intended that Zuma should do – from the most shameful episode in the history of the ANC?

It seems that those who now call for ‘robust introspection’ sense no need to do more when taking ‘collective responsibility’ for nothing has been done. Apparently, these platitudinous swords are for others to fall on. Jacob Zuma’s jeering response to the complaints against him are summed up in Zaphod Beeblebrox’s remark in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: ‘If there's anything more important than my ego around, I want it caught and shot now’.