It has been a difficult couple of weeks for South Africa, where once again the country was pushed to that tipping point because of developments in our political theatre. That was something we’d grown accustomed to in the final years of former president Jacob Zuma’s tenure – a feeling that we were bordering on becoming a failed state as attacks on the constitution and multiple tales of corruption bludgeoned whatever little confidence was left in the country.
But throughout those desperate final years of Zuma’s presidency, there were a few key institutions bravely supported by the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, that managed to fend off the state capture assault and withstand the political pressures that seemed insurmountable. It’s these self-same institutions, namely our Constitutional Court and the justice system as a whole, that have proved their mettle once again in holding their positions despite the political fallout from the arrest of the former president. The rule of law took precedence over political prudence. No-one can display the contempt of court that Zuma did without expecting consequences.
We have all just witnessed “the power of this country’s constitution and the courts that are its custodian to put even an ex-president behind bars”, to quote from author Mark Gevisser in his piece published in the UK’s Guardian last week after the arrest.
The protests against his arrests, mixed with a good deal of opportunistic lawlessness, are extremely concerning – for numerous reasons. The looting and mindless destruction of property is alarming. This is inflicting further damage to the economy which is already at stretching point because of lockdown restrictions, while health protocols are being ignored so they are also fuelling the spread of the virus. Finally, it is extremely disturbing that so many people feel that Jacob Zuma is somehow a victim, despite him having defied the Constitutional Court.
In an economic sense, though the arrest will help the country claw back lost confidence in the rule of law and our constitutional democracy . The key ingredient for success of the economic reconstruction and recovery plan that was endorsed by Parliament last October is confidence in both policy and the rule of law. Without these, we can’t hope to entice investors for the long-term.
The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry business confidence index recorded its highest level in more than three years in May but with Covid-19 restrictions having being extended on Sunday, we can expect those levels too cool. Notwithstanding this dampener on business confidence, I am in no doubt that the exhibition of strength and independence from our courts will support higher levels of confidence in the South African story in the medium to long term.
The criticism that we’ve often heard since the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture in 2018 has been that there’s been a lack of accountability despite all the harrowing tales of malfeasance. The arrest of an ex-president because of his defiance of the commission addresses this directly, sending a strong message that no one is above the law. We know that the wheels of justice turn slowly but have confidence they will deal with those implicated in the looting associated with state capture with the same strength as they have dealt with those in contempt of their processes.
It comes atop some positive momentum with regards to structural reforms in key economic sectors such as energy, where Eskom’s generation monopoly is being slowly dismantled through the introduction of new renewable electricity operators. More recently, the state agreed to sell a majority stake in the national airline, SAA, which has been a drain on public finances and therefore taxpayers for more than a decade.
So, we’re making some progress but still have formidable problems. Our descent into junk credit ratings over the past five years has been tied to policy uncertainty, sluggish growth, a stretched fiscus, struggling state-owned enterprises and the corrosive effects of corruption in the public sector. While growth and high unemployment will remain key areas of concern in years to come, we have to welcome the pragmatic manner in which we are beginning to deal with our SOEs. Sadly, corruption is likely to still play a huge part of our public life but over the past couple of weeks our fight against it got a shot in the arm.
The judiciary came to the party despite insults from political forces when judgments went against them. It showed that at the height of the state capture period, their chambers were not hollowed out as other institutions had been. In the annals of history, this could prove an incredibly important moment in rebuilding trust in the foundations of our constitutional democracy .
It is going to prove an arduous and long journey – the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer released earlier this year shows that, in 18 of 27 countries it tracked including South Africa, business is now more trusted than governments. But in its defense of a constitution that thousands died for, our judicial system showed what is possible.
This column is by Busi Mavuso and was first published in Business Day.
Have your say.
Share your opinion