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Important lessons for Africa as strong institutions win out over a strong man

King Mswati III of Swaziland. His word is law, above all other laws in the tiny kingdom. Reuters/Carlo Allegri

The executive announces on prime-time TV that it will comply with an adverse ruling from the judiciary. The president apologises for a scandal over the use of public money on his private home, and says he will pay back the personal benefits gained.

His reassurance to voters, to the legal profession and to market rating agencies, confirms that the country he runs is a robust democracy. His actions affirm the memorable words of US President Barack Obama in his address to the Ghanaian Parliament:

Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.

These events in South Africa last week, when President Jacob Zuma addressed the nation to say that he accepted a damning Constitutional Court judgment against him, stand in strong contrast to the actions of other leaders on the continent.


Contrast Zuma’s response with the history of the Afrikaner nationalists DF Malan and Hans Strydom, who perverted the 1910 constitution to remove coloured and Indian men from the common voters’ roll during the 1950s.

And more significant for 2016, contrast the South African executive’s reaffirmation of its compliance with adverse judicial rulings to the king of Swaziland, King Mswati III, and the president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, whose word is law, above all other laws.

Contrast it with Democratic Republic of the Congo President Joseph Kabila’s “slippage”, where the constitutionally-prescribed end of his term of office recedes like a mirage ever further into the future.

Zuma’s phrases describing the Constitutional Court judgment as “helpful” and providing guidance to the government were less important. Calling a defeat a learning experience is a common sense public relations tactic.

But the fact remains that the core of Zuma’s message is powerful for both South Africa and the rest of the continent’s rulers, both democratic and authoritarian.

The same applies to the media conference called by Gwede Mantashe, secretary-general of the governing African National Congress (ANC), later in the evening on April Fools’ Day. The secretary-general is the party boss, the Sardar Patel behind the Jawaharlal Nehru.

Mantashe’s decision to call the adverse Constitutional Court judgment “a victory for our young democracy” was important. It signals to party hacks and sycophants to dump their rhetoric of denouncing judges as “counter-revolutionary” and smearing the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, as a CIA agent. His choice of words indeed discredits and silences such smears.

Naturally, as the hard man of the ANC headquarters, Mantashe rejected opposition parties’ calls for Zuma to resign. No party, he said, does what its opponents tell it to do. He repeatedly emphasised that

the ANC does not revolve around one leader.

Certainly the ANC is probably the only ruling party in Africa with the power to recall a sitting president. Mantashe made it clear that whether the ANC gains or loses votes in the municipal elections late this year, Zuma will not be singled out as the cause of this.

Politically weakened

Behind the public saving of face, Zuma has undoubtedly been politically weakened by dragging out the Nkandla scandal for so long.

Until now, he has won about two-thirds of the votes against Kgalema Motlanthe and others when push came to shove. But as soon as the 2016 municipal elections are out of the way, candidates and lobbying will emerge all the way to the ANC’s 2017 national conference, which will choose Zuma’s successor.

By that time, Zuma will face a string of further very serious test cases. The Helen Suzman Foundation and others have brought court applications to declare the heads of key prosecution and investigative authorities unfit to hold office, and to rule that the president’s appointments were irrational.

There is a great deal to play for and the road ahead is likely to be rocky. The Suzman Foundation was recently raided by plainclothes men armed with guns, earphone communications and handcuffs, who stole all its computers. On the face of it, this creates the impression that the raiders appear too lazy to apply for search warrants. Such incidents raise concern about lawless actions of securocrat overreach, which are incompatible with the rule of law and democracy.

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