Zuma helped our democracy pass a crucial test this week
By Steven Friedman
DESPITE the hand-wringing in much of our national debate, our
democracy is in much better shape than many people imagine. That is the
message of this week’s Cabinet reshuffle and the announcements that
The firing of two ministers and the suspension of the
national police commissioner are important steps forward for democracy,
which may make it easier to fight corruption. They also highlight flaws
in the way many of us understand our politics.
Three ways in which President Jacob Zuma ’s announcements are being analysed all say something important about how not to understand our current condition.
First, some cling doggedly to the stock explanation for
anything Zuma or the government does — that it must aim to influence the
African National Congress (ANC) leadership election in Mangaung next
When Zuma announced an inquiry into the arms deal, or
promised to release the Donen report on oil-for-food transactions, we
were bombarded with analysis explaining how this was all about
strengthening his position and weakening his enemies. This was despite
the fact that, in both cases, a much more obvious explanation was
available: the government faced court action and may have decided to
deflect it. That this was what was happening seems now to be confirmed —
the arms deal inquiry will last two years, and so it cannot be used to
influence a leadership election only 15 months away.
Nor is there any clear link between the reshuffle and the
ANC election. Despite Zuma’s usual attempt to ensure that every faction
has been accommodated, none of the changes seems likely to help him.
It remains a mystery why he insists on playing musical
chairs with some of his ministers, but it is hard to see how doing this
aims to get him re-elected.
ANC presidential politics are important. But they — and the
ANC — are not the only political game in town. There are many other
factors in our democracy that shape what the government does: citizens’
groups, the media, public opinion and the institutions set up by the
constitution. The obsession that everything the government does must be
linked to Mangaung ignores the many forces with the power to shape our
The reshuffle and the other announcements responded to
pressures from society and the institutions — they were not an attempt
to influence Mangaung.
While most of this response was positive, some may be less
so: a two-year commission may be used to deflect pressure on the arms
deal. But they are reminders that we need to take all the forces that
shape our democracy seriously and not project all our anxieties onto the
Second, some reduce what happened to a debate on the
virtues and vices of the president. They are divided between those who
wax lyrical about his statesmanship and those who grumble that he could
have done more, sooner. This repeats another of our fallacies — the
obsession with "leadership" and the belief that our future depends
entirely on the merits or otherwise of the people in political office.
Zuma did not "do the right thing", to use the public
protector’s phrase, because he is a fearless fighter against corruption.
If he was, he would have acted far sooner and he and his colleagues
would have made it clear that the ministers acted improperly and that
the commissioner may have done the same.
It was not easy for him to act: he is of that generation of
ANC leaders that is used to showing loyalty to each other in the face
of external attack. He is rooted in the politics that allows figures
such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Manto Tshabalala- Msimang to win
large shares of the vote at ANC elections because they ran afoul of the
media or the courts, even though few in the ANC thought they should be
Zuma has also packed the government’s security cluster with
allies from his home province — police commissioner Bheki Cele is one.
Until now, members of this inner circle have been guaranteed their
positions, whatever else changes in the government.
And so it must have been particularly hard to suspend — and perhaps jettison — Cele.
Zuma acted, then, not because he wanted to but because he was convinced that he needed to act.
But why should this matter?
The issue is not whether Zuma is "good" or "bad". It is
that the system worked. That it did so in the face of presidential
reluctance makes what happened on Monday more, not less, momentous: it
may show that some democratic principles are becoming so ingrained that a
president who would have preferred to stand by his colleagues felt he
If constitutional government is indeed taking root, that is far more important than the qualities of the president.
The second lesson, then, is that we need to base our
assessment of how the country is doing on whether democracy is taking
root, not on whether we have found a super hero to lead us.
Third, there is the "take it for granted" brigade for whom
no democratic advance is good enough because we don’t look like an
idealised version of western Europe.
Nothing much has changed, they insist, because Zuma did
only what he was forced to do and he did not root out every single
vestige of corruption.
But the government did not have to do this. Legally, it
could ignore the public protector’s reports or denounce them as smears.
The ANC would still have won the next election if it did that. That the
government listened despite this was remarkable.
There is nothing automatic in any society about the idea
that political office-holders should listen to public protectors or,
indeed, public opinion.
If this accountability is achieved at all, it requires
trials of strength between the political power-holders and those who
hold them to account. Any new precedent that makes the government
account is a step forward, even if the gain is limited. That a reluctant
government with a secure majority agreed to be held to account is a
huge step forward for democracy and accountability, even if it did it so
The public protector clearly understands the limits of her
office better than most commentators. Thuli Madonsela is our most active
public protector yet and she understood that there was nothing
automatic about the accountability her office is meant to instil. She
seems to have concluded — accurately — that her only credible weapon was
public opinion. Through road shows and media briefings, she galvanised
the citizenry — or those sections able to make politicians take notice —
and this must have played a key role in Zuma’s decision.
So the third lesson is that democracy does not spring fully
formed from a new constitution. It will always be tested as power-
holders try to remain as unaccountable as possible and, each time we
pass a test, democracy is more secure.
For all the imperfections of Zuma’s announcements, our
democracy has passed an important test and this will make it more
difficult in future for people in high places to abuse public trust.
Much work remains to be done if democracy is to take root
and the government is to account to citizens. But this week’s
presidential decisions have made the task more than a little easier.
• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.