A Vibrant Civil Society, a Free Press, and an Independent Judiciary – last remaining bastions of democratic South Africa

As South Africa approaches the 23rd anniversary of its first non racial and democratic election on April 27th, the country finds itself once again being hurled from one political crisis to another.  From December 2015, President Zuma and his ANC government have been at the heart of several serious crisis involving corruption, poor governance, police brutality, and most lately the debacle over a contractual agreement that threatens the payment of monthly social benefits to 17 million of the poorest citizens. It is becoming increasingly clear that government no longer has the best interests of its population at heart. From the president, to ministers and mayors, elected officials are hell bent on scoring political goals, pursuing self enrichment schemes and protecting those that break the law. Instead the obligation to uphold the constitution and advance the realisation of rights for people living in South Africa has fallen on a combination of three pillars: the press, the courts and NGOs.

A free and critical press is essential in holding government to account. We witnessed the unravelling of the façade of Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini under severe scrutiny from reports during a press conference on 5 March 2017, when Dlamini achieved the incredible task of speaking for an hour and saying nothing. Yet the relationship between government and the media goes deeper than a bad press conference in which the  Minister eventually barked:  “This is our media briefing”. Instead  we are seeing  a pattern of intimidation, disdain and restrictions.

Take for example three recent events when the Mail and Guardian was visited by the police allegedly on the instructions of the Public Protector to investigate its sources; when reporters were targeted by violent protestors in Pretoria during the anti- immigrant and crime march on February 24th; and during the State of the Nation Address when the media was intimidated by the police and it ’s ability to move was restricted. All of this has been going on under a broader rhetoric of unsubstantiated claims that the media is  working against the government and creating a ‘crisis’ that don’t exist. The real issue here of course, is that government has realised that the media can be an impediment to its agenda of hoodwinking the public, and is hell bent on trying to interfere in this regard.

Second, when government breaks its own laws over and over again, civil society steps in to hold it to account. Organisations such as Black Sash, Lawyers for Human Rights, and Freedom Under Law, have all brought urgent court applications and community mobilisations to ensure that government’s actions remain lawful. Recent examples include a High Court judgement to keep the Refugee Resettlement Office in Port Elizabeth open;  and of course the ending case at the Constitutional Court to review and supervise social grants. Yet instead of embracing this collective and participate in its processes of entrenching accountability and democracy, civil society has been met with sinister and unsubstantiated claims by government accusing it of being under the influence of foreign donors, and even of  instigating regime change. Yet the fact remains that civil society fulfils an important role in maintaining the checks and balances needed for democracy to flourish. These are the basic tents of the country’s constitutional order, yet like many others has been swept aside in pursuit of narrow political agendas.

Finally and perhaps most strongly the country’s independent judiciary, which at the highest level at least, has pointedly emphasised its ability and willingness to call out state entities, ministries and even the president when they have overstepped a mark. From the order for Zuma to pay back into the state coffers for irregular expenditure on is Nkandla home, to the current SASSA debacle, the constitutional court in particular has not minced its words in issuing scathing judgements or criticism hat reveal the fault lines in government.

There is an urgent need to defend and support these pillars of democracy, its all there is  left. How long can they remain standing and steadfast before the rot of Zuma’s administration penetrates? One needs only turn to Turkey and Zimbabwe, to name a couple of recent examples to see how quickly and devastatingly a government can turn on the media, civil society and the judiciary to clamp down dissent and transparency.

[Photograph taken by André-Pierre, the South African Constitutional Court Building. Licened under CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0). Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.]

About Zaheera Jinnah

Zaheera Jinnah has a PhD in anthropology and a background in development studies and social work. Her research interests are in labour migration, gender and diaspora studies. She is a research associate at the ACMS where she teaches, supervises graduate students, and engages in policy and academic research. Her recent publication is the co-edited book (Palgrave) ‘Gender and Mobility in Africa: Borders, Bodies and Boundaries'.