Khadija Magardie
Khadija Magardie

No country for Chicken Littles

“The erosion of institutions” has become something of a buzzword.

Add to this the “paralysis in crucial institutions”, and “institutional fabric being unwound”, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Mobutu’s Zaire.

They’re usually adjectives attributed to the local commentariat: which interpret any event as a sign of the country’s imminent implosion/race war annihilation/economic collapse/Zimbabwefication.

The more an association can be made between this perceived institutional degeneration and President Jacob Zuma, the better.

The prosecution services, the courts, the Chapter Nines (or at least one of them) and SARS are held up as cases in point.

Undoubtedly some of these institutions face challenges 21 years into democracy. Whether of governance, personnel or funding challenges, or managing “executive interference”, each present different contexts, circumstances, challenges and opportunities.

Policy shifts, changes in shape or form, the come and go of high-profile individuals, and even ordinary churn — is part of the complexity of achieving a modern, developed state.

Applying a one-size-fits-all theory that “all roads lead to Nkandla” has become stale and unoriginal.

Coverage of the appointment of a new head of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has been instructive.

Since he was even put forward as a candidate, Mr Vuma Mashinini’s name has been dragged through the mud.

The same commentariat, joined by opposition parties, tell us this respected commissioner (with a stellar CV and considerable experience as deputy chief electoral officer) couldn’t possibly be qualified for the position.

His crime: being “a Zuma man”. If only it ended there.

With Mashinini’s appointment, we are told; the institutional integrity of the IEC has been irredeemably eroded. All before the man has even taken his seat.

“Zille warns Mashinini against vote-rigging” read one headline.

“Exodus at IEC amid move to put Zuma man in charge” read another. Below the headline, to back up the author’s exaggerations, there is the report of a single resignation, which we are told much lower down in the story, actually predated Mashinini’s candidacy.

Mashinini was recommended for the position last month by a panel headed by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

It’s a subject the chief justice would know well, after all. His appointment in 2009 was also held to be “controversial” with his suitability questioned on the basis of his “close ties to Zuma”.

The narrative has become a common one. Throw in the spectre of executive interference, and predict how with our institutions irrevocably damaged, we are on the path to failed statehood.

When the head of the Special Investigations Unit announced his resignation in January to care for a dying wife, no amount of explanation on his part could convince ‘’analysts” that “Zuma” was behind the “surprise move”.

Similarly, the suspension of now former Hawks boss Anwa Dramat was also read as a purge. It is said that “asking to see the Nkandla file” led to his removal.

But it depends on which “analyst” you ask. Another publication cites a “refusal to hand over the Nkandla files” as behind the axing.

That the Hawks have repeatedly said they aren’t investigating the issue of Nkandla seems almost beside the point.

Enter SARS. Despite a mile-long charge sheet against several suspended senior officials, which includes corruption, dishonesty and numerous tax and Public Finance Management Act violations: political commentators have been quoted saying the charges are trumped up and mask political interference.

Because the cases are currently before the courts, it’s unclear whether the suspensions are really a sign that this venerable institution is really on its last legs under a Zuma presidency.

In February the Economist carried an article titled “A one-man demolition job”. Rehashing the “institutional erosion” theme it goes on to list all our institutions “under attack”, — among them “some of the most efficient and respected bits of state”.

Vas Soni’s resignation is described as such in heavy inverted commas.

SARS is said to be “coming under fire for clashing with the ruling party”.

National Prosecuting Authority officials who have been sacked or left are said to have done so “after probing allegations of corruption with a little too much vigour”.

The Economist editors will presumably have missed follow-up on the bit about the R60 million allocated in this year’s budget to the Public Protector’s office to fulfil its mandate.

It could very well be that institutional shake-ups are having a negative effect on confidence in the country, including from the electorate itself.

But what these days might pass for solid analysis and commentary on events of political significance — is shallow: little more than punditry and guesswork.

In the children’s folk tale, Chicken Little (known as Chicken Licken in other jurisdictions) becomes convinced the world is coming to an end after an acorn falls on his head. He rushes about tweeting “The Sky is falling!”

Illustration for the story "Chicken Little", 1916

Illustration for the story “Chicken Little”, 1916

All modern democracies have their Chicken Little. Anyone who follows US politics knows that the Republican Party is the indomitable Chicken Little: interpreting every decision made by the Obama administration as a sign of how the country is going to the dogs.

But our home-grown Chicken Littles haven’t taken exaggeration, mass hysteria and paranoia to new heights.

A television news channel and a government department cut a deal to carry native advertising (an accepted public-relations norm in other parts of the world) and its “Stasi-style propaganda”.

An incident of racism at a school hits the headlines and we are “One of the most racist countries in the world!”

In an article about corruption, the governing party’s leaders are described as “our own versions of Mobutu Sese Seko”.

Seriously?

In the interests of reviving an evidently stagnant public discourse, media “fact-checker” organizations should be encouraged to fact check these claims of “erosion of institutions” and “Zuma interference”. With the same vigour with which they dissect the State of the Nation and virtually any government statement, line by line.

We aren’t Rwanda on the brink of genocide, contrary to the rhetoric of the Economic Freedom Fighters at the height of “Cockroachgate”.

South Africa’s institutions have shown resilience against attempts at “executive interference” virtually since their establishment. We have a strong and vibrant civil society, a robust media, and ready recourse to the courts. Despite this some clearly believe we remain at the precipice, with government preparing to drag editors off to the Gulag any day now.

We seem to be facing a classic case of what Francis Fukuyama describes as “getting to Denmark”.

There are those who would imagine that we should already be that ideal country with “all three sets of political institutions in perfect balance: a competent state, strong rule of law, and democratic accountability”.

Of course, these modern institutions have gradually evolved over centuries in modern, developed democracies like Denmark.

If it is time for a discussion around the strengthening of institutions, so be it. But it cannot be that every crisis is a signpost to Armageddon.

Nobody is asking for sunshine journalism, but perspective.

Fact, surely, and not supposition, should colour and define the national debate.

Not the paranoia of the Chicken Littles.

And their Tweets.

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