Braai fire hopes are now pinned on the judiciary

William Saunderson-Meyer says our spirits are as low as they've ever been post-1994


Democratic South Africa’s journey has for almost two dozen years been a roller coaster ride. One that soared to dizzying heights, followed by stomach churning plunges. 

Never, however, have the spirits around the nation’s braai fires slumped as low as they are now. Over the past year or so, it seems that South Africans have hit the nadir of disillusionment, frustration and anger. 

To be accurate, the Zuma years have been less of a roller coaster ride than a steady downwards slide. And we are picking up speed, flashing past grim markers of decline – Marikana, Guptas, Eskom, SABC, and Esidimeni. 

This week it was the SA Social Security Agency (SASSA) that marked a new low. The Black Sash, joined by Freedom Under Law, applied for the Constitutional Court to exercise oversight over the payment of social grants.

Of course, it should not be necessary for the Constitutional Court to rule on what is blindingly obvious to everyone except President Jacob Zuma. Bathabile Dlamini’s performance as Social Development minister has been one of “absolute incompetence”, as Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng phrased it, for a very long time.

Nor should it be necessary for the Constitutional Court to monitor the performance of a minister and make administrative decisions on her behalf. Executive oversight is the responsibility firstly of the president, of Jacob Zuma. 

It was the useless Dlamini who was being judicially lashed. But it is really the president, in abstentia, that the Court is addressing.

Advocate Geoff Budlender‚ representing Black Sash that brought the application, cut to the nub: “The painful truth is the executive failed to meet obligations. And the painful truth is that Parliament has failed to exercise oversight.”

While the media has overflowed with outrage over the SASSA scandal, in truth there is little that is truly surprising about it. It differs from all the other milestones to disaster only in that the Constitutional Court application imposed a scrutiny that otherwise would not have occurred. 

Perhaps appropriately for a man who likes to prance around in leopard skin and designer takkies, Zuma operates somewhat like a feudal king. He has surrounded himself with robber barons that, in exchange for their fealty, have licence to plunder to their own account. 

Such a monarch had great power, but also operated under practical constraints. In exchange for their loyalty, the one intervention readily tolerated from the king would have been to settle territorial disputes as to who could loot where. 

The plight of the peasantry would have been largely immune to any intervention, regal or judicial. To punish a pillaging lord for trampling excessively on the common man would have been simply unthinkable. 

To do would have achieve nothing more than to encourage the barons to set aside their internecine squabbles and unite in order to install a more pliable king. So ideally, Zuma would not want to have to discipline ministers who behave badly.

That some of the Constitutional Court judges think Dlamini has failed in her duty of oversight is not news. This was flagged two years ago when the judiciary took its first look at the existing grant payments contract.

Nor is there anything substantively new in the web of lies and obfuscation that has been shown to shroud the process whereby tenders are awarded, and the terms on which private companies provide services to the state. This is exactly how the forces of state capture have engineered the process to work, to maximum benefit of the tenderpreneurial parasites.

Zuma has always known that Dlamini is a thief and a liar. In the 2006 Travelgate scandal she pleaded guilty to defrauding the government of a quarter of a million rand, for which she got a fine and a five-year suspended jail sentence. 

But Dlamini is a useful thief and liar. After Zuma became president, Dlamini, who hails from his home province and is fiercely loyal – critical qualities in a robber baroness – was rehabilitated and appointed to head the Social Development ministry. And as president of the ANC Women’s League she has been entrusted with the job of promoting the campaign of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former wife of the president, to be the next president of SA. 

The antics of the feudal aristocracy and their sovereign, of course, were not subject to judicial review.  If, when the Constitutional Court delivers its judgment, it makes a finding that is unequivocally damning of Dlamini – for example, a punitive award of costs against her in her personal capacity – Zuma will be in trouble. 

He will have to ditch her, otherwise risk further disquiet in a parliamentary ANC that is at last showing signs of shedding its instinctual deference towards the president. Either course of action will weaken Zuma. 

This should lift the spirits of we gatvol vassals clustered forlornly around the braai.

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