It is by now trite to note that in South Africa there are very serious, some would say obscene, disparities in wealth between rich and poor, made worse by the recent economic turmoil in the world. More than a million South Africans have lost their jobs over the past two years, joining the roughly 35% of the population that are unemployed or has long since stopped looking for work at all.
Many people continue to live in informal settlements (in shacks that are often flooded and are bitterly cold in winter) and many go to bed hungry. Many cannot afford the pay-as-you-go water and electricity services ostensibly provided to them by the state – if these services are provided to them at all – while many others receive substandard health care and are forced to send their children to dysfunctional schools where teachers are often not in class to teach and where children may well have no access to libraries, laboratories or sufficient computer facilities.
Of course, if one happens to be an ANC leader – inside or outside of government – or if one is one of the captains of industry (who became rich by exploiting black workers during the apartheid era and remain rich today by donating money to the ANC), one would probably not directly be affected by this reality. After all, one will be driving around in a car (who was paid for by tax money that could have fed a starving child) costing more than a million Rand (that is, when one is not renting a fancy car for hundreds of thousands of Rand a year), or one will be living in the Mount Nelson Hotel (if one is not living in a R8 million house provided by the state). Just yesterday it was reported that the state had forked out R183 million on brand new mansions to house cabinet ministers, money that could have been used to house around 2,000 poor families.
It is against this background that one should read the bizarrely immoral opinion article (penned by Ngoako Ramatlhodi, ANC NEC member, chairperson of the ANC National Elections Committee and Deputy Minister of Correctional Services) and published in The Times today. Mr Ramatlhodi probably knows that the credibility of the ANC and the government it leads is being eroded by lavish and wasteful spending on the perks of party leaders and by the constant revelations of government corruption in our media and by the Public Protector.
It is therefore not surprising that he is now using the South African Constitution and our indpendent constitutional institutions as scapegoats to try and divert attention from the failures of the government. Our government is failing to address the most basic needs of the poor while government and party leaders live lavish lifestyles at the expense of taxpayers and of the poor, whose lives could have been improved by the money wasted on extravagant perks and the millionaire lifestyles of ANC leaders.
According to Mr Ramatlhodi the Constitution is deeply flawed because while it bestows political power on the ANC (who by virtue of divine intervention will always represent the interests of all black South Africans even when its leaders steal from the very masses it claims to represent and when these leaders misuse funds – earmarked to address the social and economic inequality in our society - to satisfy their own venal and selfish needs), it also supposedly “immigrates” substantial power away from the legislature and the executive and vests it in the judiciary, Chapter 9 institutions and civil society movements. He bemoans the fact that the ANC “embraced what one calls the emptying of the state” and then continues:
Apartheid forces sought to and succeeded in retaining white domination under a black government. This they achieved by emptying the legislature and executive of real political power. On the other hand, the liberation movement was overwhelmed by a desire to create a society bereft of any form of discrimination and, as a result, made fatal concessions. We thus have a Constitution that reflects the great compromise, a compromise tilted heavily in favour of forces against change.
Thus the Constitution - interpreted and applied by the judiciary, and Chapter 9 bodies such as the Public Protector - as well as civil society groups fighting for real transformation of our society have been allowed to rob the ANC of its power to govern the country through the legislature and the executive, blocking the “fundamental change” required to turn South Africa into a true kleptocracy. (Ok, I paraphrase the honourable Deputy Minister’s words slightly, but pardon me for interpreting this opinion piece as arguing for more power for the ANC to act in the interest of its leaders without having to account to anyone for how it spends and wastes our money for the benefit of the few.)
Mr Ramatlhodi is also upset that people challenge unlawful and unconstitutional actions of the government in our courts and that they dare to take part in democratic debates by expressing views with the aim of trying to influence public opinion for the better of society. God forbid that democracy should actually lead to a situation in which the majority of South Africans might disagree with something the governing party – with its divine right to rule - might have said or done. The ANC can surely not allow democracy actually to, well, work. What would become of the cars, the houses, the tenders, the champagne, the whiskey, the farms, the trips to visit drug-dealing girlfriends in Swiss jails?
The other tactic is to challenge as many policy positions as possible in the courts, where the forces against change still hold relative hegemony. The legislature itself has not escaped the encroaching tendency of the judiciary, with debatable decisions taken by majority views, in some instances. Decisions of the Judicial Services Commission have equally been systematically subjected to judicial reviews. The process of delegitimising the commission and its decisions has been initiated through the instrument of “public opinion”.
These views are not only uninformed and demonstrably wrong; they are also callous and dangerous. Blaming the Constitution, the courts and chapter 9 institutions for the failures of the government sufficiently to change the lives of ordinary citizens who suffered under apartheid is like a man blaming an umbrella for making him wet or a white South African blaming black citizens for apartheid.
First, it is based on the assumption that the government of the day – who currently happens to be led by the ANC – should have a free hand to do what it likes because any check on the exercise of power of the legislature and the executive would turn these branches of government into ineffectual and impotent institution. This is of course nonsense, as the majority party in Parliament can pass any law it wishes – as long as it does not infringe on the rights of the very citizens who vote for it.
Second, it assumes that a majority party will always have the best interest of the country and its people at heart, that it will never act in a selfish or corrupt manner and that it must always be trusted to respect the rights of everyone and to act in a manner that will advance the interests of those who most rely on the state for their survival and well-being. This is a truly bizarre view as governments are formed by people – and not ordinary people but politicians whose job it is to amass power and to act in their own interest while pretending to serve the public - who are not superhuman and will not act like angels unless they are forced to.
Lastly, this assumes that the ANC government actually always acts in the interests of the poor and the marginalised – even when it spends R183 million on new houses for a few cabinet Ministers, when cabinet Ministers stay at the Mount Nelson Hotel at taxpayers’ expense, when its officials enter dubious and probably corrupt leases with well-connected businessmen and waste billions of Rand in the process, money that could have been spent on really making a difference to the lives of those South Africans who are unemployed and depend on the state for its survival and well-being.
The view of the courts expressed in the Ramatlhodi piece is also either shockingly uninformed or deliberately misleading, which is, I guess, understandable as one needs to manufacture an enemy when one is losing the trust of the electorate because one is so obviously acting in a selfish and venal manner to line one’s own pockets to enable one to live a life of luxury at the expense of the poor. If Mr Ramatlhodi had read only a few judgments of the Constitutional Court, he would have known that our highest court – far more than the legislature and the executive – has been acting as a champion of transformation and of the interests of the poor.
If it was not for that court, the government would not have been forced to provide anti-retroviral drugs to poor, mostly black, pregnant women, thus saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of (mostly black) babies – all while people like Mr Ramatlhodi kept criminally silent. How many hundreds of thousands of babies died as a result of this communal silence, Mr Ramatlhodi? He would have known that thousands of people have been protected from unlawful eviction through the intervention of that court.
He would have known that the Constitutional Court has enthusiastically endorsed affirmative action and land reform and has taken the ANC government to task for not doing anything to scrap some of the most scandalous pieces of racist apartheid era legislation. One wonders whether this oversight might have been caused by the fact that leaders were too busy to benefit from tenders and to wine and dine their friends at taxpayer’s expense at the Mount Nelson Hotel or at their government provided mansions to actually care enough to table changes to the oppressive apartheid laws in our democratic Parliament.
He would have known that the Constitutional Court declared invalid sections of the truly shockingly named KwaZulu-Natal Slums Act adopted by the ANC government in that province because that Act tried to punish the landless or homeless poor for being landless or homeless (which is understandable, I guess, because a person like Mr Ramatlhodi would probably not want to be reminded of the landless and the homeless when he is sipping champagne in his R8 million government provided house).
He would also have known – just to be fair – that sometimes the Constitutional Court has not been as progressive in its judgments as some of us would have liked but that this have almost always been when it has endorsed government policies or pieces of legislation that are anti-poor, anti-women or anti- the marginalised and the vulnerable. Thus it found that it was ok for the government to cut off the electricity of destitute people and for the government to have pay-as-you-go electricity meters installed in the homes of Joburg residents – even if this was only done in poor areas where black South Africans live and not in rich areas where the ANC leaders and white people live.
It also found constitutionally valid a law which basically left destitute a women who had looked after her partner for more than ten years because that law only required the estate of a deceased partner to support a women if she had been legally married to her partner. That the ANC of Mr Ramatlhodi would support such a law is probably not surprising, seeing that the ANC President has now nominated a man for Chief Justice who has made the following remarks in a case in which a man was found guilty of raping a innocent and defenceless child (in the case of S v Sebaeng (CA 16/2007)  ZANWHC 25 (22 June 2007) about the “shortcomings” in the victim’s evidence:
She claims that the sexual intercourse was very painful but there was clearly nothing about her to suggest that she was in any pain when she arrived home and even during her stay there at her grandmother’s home … When she arrived at her grandmother’s home, the only strange things observed and spoken about by those who saw her were the Simba chips, the R30.00 and the 9 o’clock appointment with the Appellant….
One can safely assume that [the accused] must have been mindful of her tender age and thus so careful as not to injure her private parts, except accidentally, when he penetrated her. That would explain why the child was neither sad nor crying when she returned from the shop notwithstanding the rape. In addition to the tender approach that would explain the absence of serious injuries and the absence of serious bleeding, he bought her silence and cooperation with Simba chips and the R30.00.
So, while Mr Ramatlhodi believes we should entrust our legislature and executive with unlimited powers, I do not: not this government, not a DA government not ANY government anywhere in the world. Down that road lies tyranny and oppression of the worst kind. As the ANC government of which Mr Ramatlhodi is a member has demonstrated over and over again, even where the power of a government is limited and even where the Constitution exhorts it to address the needs of the poor and vulnerable, it often acts in the interests of its own members and not that of the broader public whose interests it claims to serve.
Whether the ANC is in power or anyone else is in power, we need the very institutions that Mr Ramatlhodi attacks. These institutions – created by our Constitution – protect us from the government of the day, no matter which party might serve in government. This is true in South Africa as it is true in the United States, France, India or Nigeria. If it was not for institutions like our courts – interpreting and enforcing the progressive provisions of our constitution – and of the Public Protector – exposing the scandalous corruption of Ministers and of government officials - how far away would we have been from Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya?
The “opinion” of Mr Ramatlhodi is no more than an argument in favour of an autocratic kleptocracy in which a few well-connected party leaders and businessmen would live an obscenely opulent life, while the rest of us wouldl try to survive in a world that would be nasty, brutish and probably far too short.