Democracy Watch

Autocratic rule on the rise in South Africa?

Marching on parliament?

Last week was a particularly bad one for democracy in South Africa, confirming that the country is fast drifting in the direction of autocratic rule and the erosion of the doctrine of the separation of power.

And, the events in parliament surrounding the State of the Nation Address (Sona) by President Jacob Zuma was just the tip of the iceberg.

On another front, that of law and order, the detention last week without a warrant of arrest and without giving reasons of private forensic consultant Paul O’Sullivan’s assistant, attorney Sarah-Jane Trent, also tells the story of a state security establishment which has become a law onto itself.

Trent’s arrest at O’Sullivan’s office, which was accompanied by begin detained for some hours in the back of a police before taken to a police station, follows on his questioning last year on alleged transgressions of immigration laws.

O’Sullivan is assisting the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) with an investigation against the acting national police commissioner, Lieutenant-General  Kgomotso Phahlane – a cooperation which General Phahlane is trying to prevent with an application to the court for an interdict forbidding Ipid from working with O'Sullivan.

In late October last year video footage also emerged, showing senior South African Revenue Service official, Vlok Symington, being taken hostage and manhandled by members of the Police’s  Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks) in an attempt to retrieve a document from him.

In an insightful article on the website GroundUp last week, Murray Hunter of the NGO Right2Know” warned: “ State security apparatus is overreaching – dangerously.”

He highlights how over the past two years, since David Mahlobo has been appointed Minister of State Security by President Zuma, a pattern has developed to label political dissenters of the government as “fronts” of “regime change”. Often civil society organisations and even official watchdog functionaries like the Public Protector.

Use of military

Even more telling and a reason for major concern is how the South African Defence Force has been involved in last week’s Sona-event.

At the time of writing (Sunday, 12 January) the reasons for President Zuma’s “authorisation” for the domestic deployment of the SANDF, as required by law, were still outstanding.

The total disrespect with which Mr Zuma and his security advisers are treating parliament as the institution of supreme authority in the country, are demonstrated by the fact that the presiding officers of parliament – both the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces – admitted that they were not informed of the reasons for the deployment.

The autocratic tendency under Mr Zuma’s leadership to use military power to intimidate opposition runs, however, much deeper and even includes the response to opposition from within his own party. In September of last year ANC members who protested against his leadership at Luthuli House met with military-like resistance by a faction of ANC war veterans.

In another news event that largely went unnoticed at national level, the eThekwini local paper, Berea Mail,  over the weekend reported how the ANC mayor of the city, Zandele Gumede, has called for the establishment of a central military base in Durban.

The newspaper notes that over “the past few years we have seen a dramatic increase in the provision of security for politicians of the ruling party.

There have been a number of invasions of City Hall and the former speaker tried to close a public meeting of the council because of threats from a different faction within the ANC itself.

“It is an open secret that there are two factions within the ANC in KZN (Mr Zuma’s home base) and that neither has a reasonable majority. Depending on which publication you read, there have been about 20 politically motivated deaths in the past 12 months. None of these deaths have involved any other political party.

“Maybe it is time for the mayor to come clean and let us in on what she knows. After all, it is our City,” the paper writes.

Parliament becomes irrelevant

What South Africa witnessed when Mr Zuma could finally deliver his Sona, after all opposition members hadleft the House, was him addressing only members, bar insignificant exceptions of his own party.

To what extent Mr Zuma and the ANC regards him as leader of the party, first and foremost and not so much of the country as a whole, is illustrated by to how much trouble they went to ensure there was a backup platform for him just around the corner from parliament, a so-called “people’s assembly” of ANC supporters.

The Sona itself hardly contained anything new – just adding to the list of promises, with most from the previous year still outstanding.

The spectacle of a chaotic opening of parliament, for the third year in a row. is much more serious than the national embarrassment that it was.

Opposition parties added to the mess, but with a party and president that are in breach of the constitution – on the authority of the highest court in the land – what could one expect from them?

If the opposition in parliament has given up on the relevance of parliament as an institution to hold the government of the day and its leader to account, what reaction can one expect from citizens who are often becoming despondent in the battle to improve their quality of life?

It is an extremely dangerous position for a country to be in, and it becomes difficult to disagree with Judith February who in response to what has happened with Sona 2017, said: ”As citizens we stared tyranny in the face on Thursday night and saw a cowardly President perfectly prepared to use force to back up his waning power.”

In an article a year ago on the website The Conversation, Sea Gossel of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business described South Africa as at best a “hybrid democracy.”

He noted that “worryingly for South Africa, statistics show that hybrids that have lasted longer than 20 years have a higher probability of falling back into autocracy.”

The country seems teeteing on the verge of falling victim to that general trend.

by Piet Coetzer

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