Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2001-03-08 Reporter: Farouk Chothia Editor:

Zuma should Urge Hotheads to Respect the Constitution

Publication  Business Day
Date 2001-03-08
Reporter Farouk Chothia
Web Link

AMBER lights flashed last week, cautioning that the African National Congress (ANC) was displaying the traits of the "self-centred ruling elite" that President Thabo Mbeki warned of last year.

The ANC showed contempt for the constitution by closing ranks behind Justice Minister Penuell Maduna in a parliamentary ad hoc committee, while it breached a well-reasoned convention in the public accounts committee by riding roughshod over colleagues from other parties.

This committee stands between SA becoming a banana republic and a model for good governance in the developing world. For this reason, the committee has, since its formation in 1994, followed the convention of nonpartisanship so that state spending is scrutinised without being blurred by party political considerations.

This changed last week when the ANC, led by whip Geoff Doidge after the demotion of MP Andrew Feinstein, used its 66% majority to rewrite the committee's interpretation of a resolution calling for the Heath unit's inclusion in the arms probe.

The ANC's action was contrary to the sentiments expressed by Mbeki at the party's general council meeting in Port Elizabeth in July last year. In his address, Mbeki warned that failure to root out corruption could turn the ANC into a "self-centred ruling elite" a fate that befell other liberation movements, the president noted, after they took power. "It is the masses of the people who get robbed and condemned to perpetual poverty, while a small elite flourishes on illgotten gain," Mbeki said.

The public accounts committee's original stance, backed by its ANC members, was motivated by such a fear that the jobs promised to the masses through offset programmes would not materialise, while a wellconnected elite would enrich itself.

Now the ANC has given the impression that it wants to give refuge to corrupt figures rather than live up to the promises made in Port Elizabeth.

Against this backdrop, one has to ask why Kader Asmal, the chairman of the cabinet committee on ethics and the chairman of the ANC's disciplinary committee, has not stepped in to remind the party hierarchy of its moral obligations.

His silence on the shenanigans around the arms deal is deafening, just as it has been on the ad hoc committee's decision to overlook Maduna's attack on the auditorgeneral's office, and thus snub public protector Selby Baqwa, who recommended action.

Asmal said in March last year that a code of ethics governing the conduct of public office-bearers was expected to come into effect within three months. But a year later this has not happened.

Baqwa has been clamouring for the code since August 1999, arguing that it is difficult to bring office-bearers to book without "clearly definable ethical prescripts".

The ANC is eroding confidence in Baqwa's office. Why should the public look up to this constitutionally created institution when its recommendations end up in the dustbin?

The constitutional order in SA will be only as strong as the ANC allows it to be. The ruling party has not acted illegally by ignoring Baqwa's recommendation on Maduna, but it has set a precedent that future leaders (who may well be from other parties) could use to justify violations of the spirit of the constitution.

SA's constitution, like that of other countries, was born out of a belief that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The constitution exists to protect the rights of citizens, and to ensure there are checks and balances on the power of politicians.

It is backed up by conventions, with politicians expected to uphold them at all times, rather than breaking them at convenient moments.

In the two parliamentary committees, the ANC failed to act within the spirit of the constitution or the conventions that have emerged since the birth of democracy in 1994.

By demoting former public accounts head Andrew Feinstein and shielding Maduna, the ANC has signalled that it is does not pay to fight corruption, but it is worth fighting an anticorruption body.

There is no doubt that opposition parties, particularly the Democratic Alliance (DA), contributed to the fracturing of the public accounts committee along party political lines. The DA was the first to deploy its political animals to the committee. One of them, Nigel Bruce, said there was nothing wrong with the politicisation of the committee.

But two wrongs do not make a right. The ANC should have resisted the temptation of fighting back, and should have worked towards safeguarding the integrity of the committee.

Nothing less should have been expected of the party. It was at the forefront of the struggle for democracy and has the most to lose in terms of public support, investor confidence and spending on the poor if the committee's independence is destroyed.

As the leader of government business, Deputy President Jacob Zuma is the link between Parliament and the executive, and between the ruling party and the opposition.

He now needs to rise above the fray by advising SA's political hotheads to cool off, and to rededicate themselves to the values underpinning the constitution. This means respecting the principle of a separation of powers between the executive and legislature, showing the highest regard for the offices of the auditor-general and public protector, and rebuilding the credibility of the public accounts committee.

The alternative will be to go down the slippery slope that Mbeki warned of last year.  

With acknowledgment to Farouk Chothia and Business Day.