With just a few weeks to go before its fifth democratic election, South Africa is in the throes of a crisis.
From news reports, opinion columns, and press releases from opposition parties, outsiders could be forgiven for believing the country’s dearth of democratic accountability begins and ends with President Jacob Zuma, who is assured a second five-year term in office despite the trail of scandals he has left in his wake.
The propensity to blame Mr. Zuma for all the country’s ills is especially high at the moment, following the release of a damning report by the Office of the Public Protector, a watchdog institution tasked with investigating improper conduct in government affairs. Led by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, a lawyer who turned down a prestigious Harvard scholarship in 1994 to focus on helping draft her country’s landmark constitution, the protector’s office, akin to a national ombudsman, found that Mr. Zuma and his family received undue benefits from a $22.4 million government project to ostensibly upgrade security arrangements at his private residence in Nkandla, in rural KwaZulu-Natal.
The undue benefits came in the form of a visitors’ center, a cattle kraal, a chicken run, a swimming pool and an amphitheater — among other things. Ms. Madonsela’s report on what has been dubbed “Nkandlagate” asserted that these installations had enhanced Mr. Zuma’s comfort, not his security.
The report also recommended that Mr. Zuma repay a reasonable portion of the costs given that he had tacitly accepted the undue benefits, an assertion the president has challenged. While campaigning in Gugulethu, a township outside of Cape Town where half the residents live in shacks, he went so far as to say he doesn’t see why he should pay for any part of the upgrades to his home when he didn’t ask for them.
Such is the unwillingness of Mr. Zuma to be held accountable by the people he serves and the constitutional bodies tasked with keeping his government in line. He displayed the same unwillingness last year, after his close ties to the influential Gupta family were used to flout established national security and immigration protocols to secure the rights for a planeload of the family’s guests, traveling from India to South Africa for the wedding of Vega Gupta and Aakash Jahajgarhia, to land at a military base in Pretoria.
And, today, two years after the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that state prosecutors should produce the record of their decision in 2009 to drop charges of corruption against Mr. Zuma and the French arms manufacturer, Thint, the president’s lawyers continue to use all manner of legal skullduggery to hide the decision from public scrutiny. (The charges relate to the government’s acquisition of military equipment in 1999, a transaction that is currently the subject of a presidential commission of inquiry dogged with accusations that it is one-sided and government witnesses are allowed to present unchecked and unchallenged testimony).
For all these reasons, Mr. Zuma has been the primary target of withering attacks from the opposition and other critics. But the singular focus on Mr. Zuma’s faults misses the fact that all of his excesses would not have been so egregious if the country’s underlying mechanisms of accountability had been stronger and if the extent of the people’s participation in democratic processes extended beyond periodic voting.
The redeeming value of Nkandlagate is that it provides a means for us to understand the anatomy of South Africa’s democratic crisis.
Ms. Mandonsela’s report names and shames at least three government departments — police, public works and defense — for failing dismally to adhere to government procurement rules and acting unlawfully in the installation of facilities over and above those needed to ensure the president’s safety. What, if anything, did parliamentary committees tasked with overseeing the day-to-day work of these government departments do?
The short answer is nothing. It took a newspaper exposé to blow the lid on Nkandlagate in December 2009, when the project’s estimated expenditure stood at what now seems a humble $5.9 million. Even after that, as costs skyrocketed, the committees took little direct interest.
There is another line of defense in the accountability mechanism that failed: the people of South Africa, to whom Parliament is answerable, at least in theory. It may have been members of the public who flooded the public protector’s office with complaints from December 2011 onwards. But it was that same public that failed to recognize the significance of Ms. Madonsela’s recommendation to Parliament in April 2010 that it close a legal loophole in the executive members act — a code of ethics to which the president and his ministers are beholden — that operated from the illogical assumption that the president would never be in a position to have breached the code.
The loophole was never closed and now that Ms. Madonsela has found, yet again, that Mr. Zuma breached the code for failing to protect state resources, the dire possibility exists that her finding is legally inconsequential.
The complete and utter institutional failings that characterized Nkandlagate are present in just about every other instance where the government has failed to heed the concerns of citizens or meet their needs.
From the multibillion dollar project to install infrastructure to collect toll fees to repay the costs of the upgrade to highways in Gauteng Province to the failure to ensure that every South African has access to the most basic of services, including water, sanitation and housing, the truth is apparent. The gulf between we the people and the representatives we elect to represent us is so vast that they hear only a few of us.
It is fortunate for our corrupt and flawed representatives — and a tragedy for the country — that deep divides of race, class and geography have until now prevented South Africans from recognizing the common anger and resentment that unites them. Were it not for these divisions, the republic, no longer immune to the will of the people, might be facing a mass insurrection.
T. O. Molefe is an essayist, at work on a book on post-apartheid race relations.