Events commemorating the 23rd anniversary of the assassination of Chris Hani, the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP) leader, were held throughout South Africa over the weekend.
A red hot topic at the Hani memorials was the recent Constitutional Court ruling requiring President Jacob Zuma to pay back monies improperly spent on renovating a cattle barn, swimming pool and visitor’s center at his residence in KwaZulu Natal. The Court also censured Zuma over his failure to abide by a ruling of the country’s Public Protector (ombudsman), Thuli Madonsela, which had already ordered him to repay.
The Constitutional Court (the highest court in South Africa) found that both the president and South Africa’s Parliament had violated the country’s constitution: Zuma by ignoring Madosela’s order and Parliament by attempting to absolve him of the responsibility.
The high bench’s unanimous decision was the latest in a series of dramatic occurrences that have thrown the 20-year old democracy into turmoil. A few months ago, South Africa’s economy was roiled by the summary and seeming inexplicable dismissal of the country’s respected finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, and his replacement with a novice from the ANC’s parliamentary delegation.
This was followed by revelations from a number of government officials that representatives of a prominent business family, the Guptas, close friends of President Zuma, had offered them Cabinet positions without the knowledge of government. This practice has been referred to by the South African Communist Party and others as “state capture,” meaning the control of government portfolios by business interests.
In response public outrage has been widespread leading to calls for Zuma’s resignation and other emergency measures.
Last week several prominent ANC members and generals of the ANC’s former military wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), called for a special national ANC conference to address the crisis. Among the problems they pointed to are “the rise of factions and slates, the diminishing quality of ANC cadreship, the rise of antagonisms within the Alliance, the breakaway of unions from COSATU, the break-up of the ANC Youth League, the marginalization of committed ANC comrades, [and} the rise of vulgar and unsophisticated politics …”
At a meeting of the South African Communist Party’s leadership in response to the Constitutional Court’s ruling, the collective observed, “Thursday’s Concourt judgment and the evident popular acclamation it received from the widest array of South Africans should be a clear warning signal to the ANC, to our ANC-led alliance, and to the ANC-led government. Decisive action is now imperative …”
Acknowledging President Zuma’s televised public apology, the SACP continued, “President Zuma’s apology and his undertaking to implement to the full the remedial actions proposed by the Public Protector, and now upheld as enforceable by the Concourt, are important beginnings.
The ANC parliamentary caucus (which includes, of course, SACP members who serve as ANC MPs), also needs to conduct serious and collective soul-searching. The Concourt judgment correctly found that Parliament had failed to exercise its constitutional responsibility in holding the executive to account.”
Others went further: Ahmed Kathrada, an ANC and SACP veteran, Robben Islander and close comrade of Nelson Mandela in an open letter called for Zuma to resign arguing, “Now that the court has found that the President failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law, how should I relate to my President? If we are to continue to be guided by growing public opinion and the need to do the right thing, would he not seriously consider stepping down?”
Demands for Zuma to step down have also emerged from, among others, the South African Council of Churches, SACP anti-apartheid activist Denis Goldberg, former finance minister Trevor Manuel and most recently younger ANC members who grew up in exile who drafted their own open letter demanding a special ANC conference.
Former President Thabo Mbeki, remarking on the broader implications of the decision of the Constitutional Court and the South African constitution’s values, said, “One of these ‘foundational values’ is obviously the prescript that all the obligations imposed by the Constitution must be fulfilled … as a corollary to this, the ConCourt therefore made the determination that failure to observe these ‘foundational values’ might threaten the very ‘survival of our democracy’, and therefore constitute a counter-revolutionary act, where the revolution is understood as the establishment of our Constitutional Democracy.”
Last week, a motion by the opposition Democratic Alliance to impeach President Zuma was easily overcome by the ANC delegation in Parliament who wield an over 60 percent majority.
Meanwhile, Gwede Mantashe, Secretary General of the ANC, called on members attending a Chris Hani memorial to defend the party and not the president himself. He cautioned against the extremes of either insisting Zuma stay or demanding that he go. “Society is beginning to reduce the confidence and trust in us… It’s not about Zuma. It’s about the ANC,” Mantashe said.
Notwithstanding Mantashe’s assessment, the South African revolution seems to be passing through a watershed moment. How the watershed is bridged, and what lies on the other side, remains uncertain. One thing is clear: given the ANC’s political preponderance, it will be up to the party’s leadership and membership to decide on Zuma’s fate.
Local elections slated for early August will be an important measure of where the country’s going and how the ANC stands within it. Until then, the world watches and hopes that unity and sobriety prevail.
Photo: South African president Jacob Zuma, answers question during parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, March. 17, in a tumultuous session of Parliament. Schalk van Zuydam | AP