William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

All that Emperor Zuma wants is respect, mon. Respect!

South Africa is devolving into an imperial presidency. At its head stands Emperor Jacob Zuma, an incipient despot taking critical decisions on apparent whim.

It emerged this week that six weeks after announcing a R1-trillion deal with Russia for nuclear power stations, struck mano a mano between the South African and Russian presidents, the most senior levels of government still have not a clue what the agreement entails. Business Day revealed that neither the Treasury, which will be hard pressed to fund the deal, nor the Cabinet sub committee, which is supposed to determine nation’s energy strategy, have yet seen any of documentation.

Such a high-handed approach not only contradicts the mantra of accountability that the African National Congress loves to wax eloquent about. It also flouts the system of shared cabinet responsibility that the government is constitutionally meant to operate under.

Some of the problem lies is Zuma’s disdain for the Constitution that he swore to uphold. Another aspect of the problem is that our increasingly imperious leader is surrounded by sycophantic acolytes who will do anything that needs to be done to protect Number One from democratic scrutiny.

That Zuma has only a rudimentary understanding of the document that lays out the parameters of power, has been clear for a long time. A few years back he told a rally that the ANC was more important than the Constitution. It caused a furore at the time but was actually no more than a minor gaffe, since Zuma was merely articulating what many in the party secretly believe.

More revealing of Zuma’s ignorance of the nation’s founding document was an exchange with the official opposition, during which he said: ‘Sorry, we have more rights here because we are a majority. You have fewer rights because you are a minority … That’s how democracy works.’

That was in 2012 and the president seems not to have learnt much to the contrary in the interim. This week the Democratic Alliance’s parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane raised the issue of Zuma’s failure since August to appear before the Assembly to answer MPs’ questions, as he is statutorily obliged to do at least four times a year.

In reply, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa told MPs that they were unlikely to see the president in the National Assembly until he was treated with the proper respect. While the president had a ‘deep respect’ for the House, as long as MPs disrespected Zuma there could be no good, functional relationship.

Ramaphosa said that that relationship between MPs and the executive was a ‘two-way street’ and if they wanted a ‘decent relationship’, then it had to be ‘mutually beneficial’. This plea for some kind of political equivalent of ‘friends with benefits’ didn’t go down well with MPs from the opposition parties.

Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota cut incisively through Ramaphosa’s sophistry. The impression should not be created, he warned, that the president and deputy president accounting to Parliament was dependent on the behaviour of opposition MPs.

And there’s the nub of it. It is a breach of the Constitution for Zuma to stay away from Parliament because the back benches host a gang of Economic Freedom Front yobboes who jeer and gesticulate. While mutual respect between the head of state and the people’s elected representatives is desirable, everywhere in the world it inevitably on occasion frays.

It’s then up to the Speaker or the leader of house to restore order, by recourse to the rules of the legislature. There is no reason to believe that in SA these regulations are inadequate. They have served adequately through more politically robust times than the present chanted refrain of ‘Pay back the money’.

Unfortunately, however, Baleka Mbete was given the job of Speaker not to act as an even-handed arbiter, but in order to shield Zuma from unpleasant questions. In similar vein, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande wants a law enacted to protect Zuma from ‘insults’ by the media.

It seems what the common people need to learn, if necessary through legislative suasion, is that Emperor Zuma is dressed in dazzlingly fine raiment.

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