OPINION: Has democracy failed us?

Norman McFarlane

On April 24 2009, two days after our fourth democratic election, then Chief Justice Pius Langa wrote in the Cape Times about the state of our democracy.

In reflecting at some length upon where, as a fledgling democracy we were, and also from whence we had come, he observed: “This is a time when people are looking critically and with some intensity, not only at the pillars, foundations and structures of our society, but also at how they are being used or even abused.

“It is a scrutiny focused on the leadership of all branches of government: the executive, legislative and the judicial. It is correct that there should be this scrutiny, or even a measure of scepticism.

“This refusal to take everything for granted, this questioning attitude, means that we can ask the right questions and hold people and institutions to account.

That, in turn, is a safeguard, a guarantee, that the legacy we leave behind is a positive one that future generations will cherish and be able to build on.”

And the title of Justice Langa’s piece? “Eternal vigilance is the soul of democracy”.

A decade has elapsed since he penned these prescient words, and if we were to audit our democracy, how well would it measure up against the standards of excellence which he set?

That election was, of course, the watershed event that ushered in the calamitous Zuma era, a nine-year-long destructive, kleptocratic spree, during which we, as a country and a democracy, were literally dragged to our knees.

It was a time during which many of the vital institutions which Justice Langa adjured us to nurture, yet look upon critically, were literally stolen from us before our very eyes, yet we seemed powerless to stem the haemorrhaging of the lifeblood of our nascent democracy.

The National Assembly became a rubber stamp for those hellbent on pillaging for personal gain, the plump coffers of the state. It spurned the admonition implicit in the opening sentence of our new Constitution, “We, the people of South Africa” that the mandate of our elected representatives endures at the pleasure of the people, and for the benefit of the people as a whole, and not for the ruling elite.

The very institutions that our founding document incarnated to protect, serve and nurture our democracy, came under attack.

The independent and highly effective Directorate of Special Operations, popularly known as the Scorpions, was put to the sword before Jacob Zuma had even ascended the throne of the presidency at the Union Buildings, replaced by the Directorate of Priority Crime Investigations, aka the Hawks, which was accountable to the minister of police, effectively placing it directly under political control.

The SA Revenue Services was progressively hollowed out, stripped of the very people it needed to call to account those who would steal from the public purse, the money desperately needed to maintain crumbling infrastructure, and fund the safety net which keeps so many millions out of abject poverty.

The National Prosecuting Authority became the plaything of the powerful, with successive national directors prosecuting with, rather than without, fear, favour or prejudice.

Eskom, SAA and the SABC, among other public enterprises, became the piggy bank of the powerful, and most heinously, a family who claimed, as if by divine right, the ear of the president.

And most recently, the office of the public protector, which is inevitably measured against the yardstick of its previous incumbent, has come under intense scrutiny for its conduct and investigative outcomes, which have received scathing criticism from the courts.

Freedom of speech, at the very heart of any democratic order, has been gradually sacrificed on the altar of political correctness and pernicious identity politics, while our elected representatives have assiduously, yet covertly, stoked the fires of racial tension.

And the ruling party, in whose hands our future lies, is divided, rent asunder by contestation between the reformists (aka the CR17 faction) and the radical economic transformation populists (aka the Zuma faction, seemingly incapable of healing our shattered democracy.

Have we failed our democracy?