These powers must be kept separate

Rumours of collusion between securocrats and senior ANC officials to quash corruption allegations in the course of another internal power struggle should concern us all, writes JAN HOFMEYR.

If reports are accurate that Lieutenant-General Richard Mduli’s arrest represents the first salvo fired in a renewed battle for the presidency of the ruling party, it implies that the opinions of shadowy, background figures could once again have a strong hand in a process that should be entirely democratic within ANC structures.

The recent sequence of events leading up to Mduli’s arrest, quite eerily, seems to resemble the unfolding of the battle for power at the party’s previous National Conference in Polokwane. Once again, rumours of political plots abound, damaging intelligence memos on rampant corruption in the highest echelons are being leaked, and if these reports are to be believed, top brass within the security and intelligence communities are lining up as foot soldiers for preferred candidates. Plot or not, smoke and mirrors are once again confusing the South African public.

Scheming, manoeuvring, and even backstabbing between and within parties, are unavoidable elements of the political cut-and-thrust in a democracy. While these actions are often nakedly opportunistic and ethically questionable, it is ultimately up to constituents to adjudicate the behaviour of their representatives. In principle, the people govern, and only the supreme authority of the Constitution supersedes popular will. This, in simple terms, is the ‘rule of law’. The state, regardless of its political custodians, is responsible for protecting and upholding constitutional values without fear or favour. A second principle, the separation of powers, gives effect to this.

Together these provisions form the bedrock upon which our post-apartheid dispensation stands or falls. Regardless of race, gender, class, or political affiliation, we are all equal before the law. The guarantors of this equality are constitutionally obligated to rise above individual political, social or economic interests. Any suggestion of preferential treatment by security or intelligence bodies, not least in the leadership of the ruling party, erodes this basic assumption.

For this reason, rumours of collusion between securocrats and senior ANC officials to quash corruption allegations, and ultimately influence the outcome of another internal power struggle, should not concern only party members. Whether or not state resources are actively used, or whether influence is exerted by individuals through institutions, such collusion amounts to a clear violation of the Constitution. Evidence of active involvement by public institutions – particularly within the security cluster with its discretionary resources to ‘persuade’ – in promoting specific interests would pose critical questions about the maturity and sustainability of our democracy.

One seemingly ‘altruistic’, but perhaps naïve rationale for intervention may be distrust in the ruling party’s democratic processes to elect the ‘right’ leaders, among those concerned with political stability. This, however, would amount to a tacit admission that our democracy is not mature enough to bear the consequences of democratic decision-making.

A more plausible perspective than this condescending view may be that involvement, if it indeed exists, is motivated by power, and perhaps also the material spoils that accompany it. If true, this amounts to nothing less than greed.

Both scenarios potentially lead to slippery slopes. When the perception grows that state organs can interfere in democratic processes, or temporarily suspend the rule of law in ‘exceptional circumstances’, state leaders become accountable to the discretion of their peers and not the rule of law. This can amount to de facto indemnity from prosecution or other forms of accountability for as long as the appropriate line is towed. Conversely, such indemnity can be revoked if the relevant individual becomes a threat to the hegemony.

It is in this kind of environment – where the pursuit of individual aspirations is only subject to the collective ambitions of the government of the day – that politicians and bureaucrats, with relative impunity, can embark on lavish and wasteful overseas trips or cash in on lucrative tenders. This undermines the spirit of the Constitution and, for all intents and purposes, the letter of the law.

While the judiciary can rule on the merit of cases brought before it, selective state prosecutions will engender suspicion of the judicial system over time.

Such practices were commonplace under apartheid and should not have a place in democratic South Africa. For this reason, one must hope that current rumours implicating the country’s security apparatus in internal party matters are just that. Regrettably, a post-apartheid precedent has already been set.

With the benefit of hindsight we can now say with some certainty that President Zuma’s prosecution was both selective and politically motivated, as his defence argued at the time. Ironically, we know this only because he obtained access to evidence which no other citizen in his position would have been privy to. Critics may argue that Zuma played the same game as his accusers did in order to get him to court. They may further suggest that this was merely a continuation of a practice started by former president Thabo Mbeki in 2001, when he was accused by detractors of settling internal party scores through a public investigation of a fabricated plot.

The Zuma/Mbeki battle inflicted damage across the entire government bureaucracy, and calls have consequently been made for the appointment of managers who are detached from party politics. The country’s developmental agenda and national security cannot be held ransom to party heavyweights who conduct their political battles through public office.

Probably the most unfortunate consequence of these sagas is that the nation is again forced into an attitude of doubt and speculation. A police general falls out of favour with his superiors, is then arrested on alleged charges of a crime committed more than ten years ago, and then responds that he is being victimised for uncovering a plot and corruption, involving, amongst others, the head of the agency that arrested him. Both have been deployed by the ruling party – who should we believe?

This confusion provides fertile grounds for conspiracy theories, which ultimately rob a democracy of its greatest attributes: predictability, through transparency and accountability. Questions surrounding the founding values of the state also erode good citizenship. Those with resources may increasingly attempt to influence state discretion, while others may bypass it altogether. We should never allow such perceptions to take root. It should be a source of pride to children growing up in a free South Africa that, as far as their rights are concerned, the country’s true centre of power resides at Constitution Hill, not in Pretoria.

Jan Hofmeyr is programme manager of the Political Analysis unit at the IJR. A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Independent.

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