WHO better to ask about the direction South Africa is taking and whether it can reverse the corruption tsunami engulfing it than jurist and Struggle stalwart, Justice Albie Sachs? Aside from spending most of his adult life fighting apartheid from within the country and later from exile, he was one of the framers of the country’s Constitution promulgated in 1996 by Nelson Mandela, and a judge on the constitutional court charged with ensuring it is upheld by all.
This is what motivated callers to Radio 702 on Friday, asking him for his prognosis on the country’s situation and future. Sachs was a guest anchor on the popular Redi Tlhabi show, taking calls from the public on an open line.
The first few callers were like old friends and relatives, and talked about the days of yore rather than politics, relating fond memories of Sachs’ highly politicised Jewish family when he was a child, particularly his Lithuanian-born father Solly Sachs. The latter was a member of the Communist Party and leader of the Garment Workers Union in the 1930s, among his other political activities. Albie allowed the nostalgic memories to run a while, then turned the topic towards more serious contemporary matters. Most callers were desperately worried about the state of the country.
With the year 2016 drawing to a close after its torrent of corruption scandals and ugly political brawls, many citizens are heading into Christmas holidays with a sense of foreboding that South Africa has lost its way. So much sleaze at the highest levels has been exposed this year that it will be seen by future historians as a watershed moment in the struggle of the country to become a successful democracy, against the ethos of patronage and corruption of President Jacob Zuma’s cabal which would turn it into a failed state.
The parliamentary inquiry currently underway into the publically-owned SA Broadcasting Corporation has exposed just how deep the rot goes in this state entity, with tyrannical figures like boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng running the show on a huge salary, while violating basic principles of a proper media organisation such as editorial independence. His dictats have pressurised journalists to favour the governing ANC in their coverage, suggesting who his backers are behind the scenes.
The debacle at the SABC is symptomatic of the fiasco in other state entities such as South African Airways and power utility Eskom, which have had to be bailed out repeatedly by the government because of mismanagement and the influence of ANC-appointed people at the top who are unqualified for their jobs. South Africans are justifiably feeling exhausted and furious.
Listeners to Sachs’ radio programme expected him to share their rage and pessimism, and disappointment at what has happened to the country he fought for and sacrificed so much for. But he struck a different note, hinting at something positive many people are unable to see amidst all the smoke and political noise.
With the characteristic reserve and careful use of words of a jurist, Sachs would not be drawn into bluntly condemning Zuma and his government, but countered that things were not as pessimistic as the callers were saying. Indeed, he suggested, there were clear signs of a broad-based fightback beginning by the citizens against the country’s decline, demonstrating a healthiness in the political culture. This process was essentially the young South African democracy flexing its muscles and showing its mettle.
It is true that good people who for too long have kept silent about the state of things are now speaking up, for example the 101 ANC Struggle stalwarts demanding urgent action within the organisation to rescue it from its ideological and factional malaise. Many are calling for Zuma to resign. Other bodies such as Save South Africa, the Helen Suzman Foundation and Freedom under Law are campaigning against corruption, cronyism and patronage, sometimes with notable success.
They are turning particularly to the courts, which continue to be fiercely independent and resistant to political pressure. Indeed, the judiciary is one of the key remaining bastions of SA democracy. The most dramatic example of this was earlier this year when Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng ruled that Zuma himself had violated the Constitution by ignoring the findings of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela that he had benefitted unduly through state funds being used to upgrade his personal homestead, Nkandla. Zuma was ultimately forced to pay back more than R7m.
South Africa has never been an easy country to live in, and it is not clear which side will win in this battle for its soul. Probably for the next decade it will muddle through, with the forces of light sometimes winning, sometimes losing. Tighten your seatbelts for the ride.