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Opinion

Zondo Commission findings: a permanent change in SA politics

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Commissions of inquiry have been a feature of political life in South Africa since 1994.

However, the Seriti and Zondo commissions arguably represent the most explicit evidence of the scourge of corruption in democratic South Africa.

The Seriti inquiry into the arms deal, which cost R137 million, was handed over to former President Jacob Zuma in 2016. This commission found no evidence of the 1999 arms deal corruption.

However, Justice Raymond Zondo would hand over one of his three reports to President Cyril Ramaphosa in early January six years later.

Despite their similarities – their role in investigating allegations of widespread corruption and the stern rebuke that the commission heads received from certain public sections – there are several fundamental differences between them, with one predominating.

The most fundamental difference between them is that the Seriti Commission’s chairperson and commissioner were referred to the Judicial Service Commission on charges of gross misconduct.

A full panel of the Gauteng High Court found that the Seriti Commission mysteriously omitted crucial facts before concluding that there was no proof of corruption.

Contrarily, evidence presented to the Zondo Commission has already had dire consequences for several individuals, politicians and state-owned and private companies in South Africa and abroad.

While it is still early days, and perhaps unfair to make this comparison between the two commissions, the Zondo Commission has undoubtedly removed some dark stains from the judiciary that do not augur well for democracy.

Erosion of ethical conduct

President Ramaphosa’s renewal project, underscored by a commitment to fighting corruption and strengthening governance, has gained traction over the past two years.

Nevertheless, as the Zondo report makes abundantly clear, South Africa is struggling to respond effectively to the complexities of corruption and money laundering.

As a nation still being forged, too many men and women entrusted to lead this glorious nation have abandoned the cardinal rule that ethical conduct was central to leadership.

Instead, they have knowingly become corrupt conduits through their collaboration and conniving to collapse democratic institutions and practices.

No competent government will fold its hands and watch as its citizens’ livelihoods are destroyed by criminal elements within and outside its ranks, as reported by the Zondo Commission.

However, we need to credit President Ramaphosa – with all his leadership flaws – for his continued bold statement to implement the commission’s recommendations without fear or favour.

We may want to dismiss this boldness as another political gimmick.

In any event, I believe that civil society organisations and liberal democratic institutions are converging, as they did in the past, to challenge attempts to circumvent the recommendations of the Zondo Commission.

Trial for Ramaphosa

Several incidents after the release of the Zondo Commission report indicate what we can expect when the final report is released.

Of note were some ANC members’ statements that seemed to differ from President Ramaphosa about the need to support the implementation of the commission’s recommendations.

Somehow, Ramaphosa will be on trial – fairly or unfairly – during the year.

He will have to overcome some challenges, including the dismal performance of the ANC during the 2021 local government elections and his stance on corruption.

Yet, thus far, he has managed to shrug off threats from increasingly aggressive and confrontational elements within the ANC.

The ANC will hold its elective conference at the end of the year.

Besides the multipronged, political disinformation strategies that often precede such conferences, some defenders of democracy implicated in the Zondo report may join beleaguered activists to crush opponents and settle scores.

Others, however, may take the findings against them on review.

Surmounting these threats from within the ANC will depend on the extent to which the president and his supporters are willing to risk his aspiration for a second term instead of serving the long-term interests of South African citizens.

Beyond the politics

The Zondo Commission’s report will remain largely fruitless unless it goes hand in hand with political will and oversight to act on recommendations with the prima facie of wrongdoing and criminality.

Without the latter, we need to ask serious questions about Parliament, and the executive’s ability to solve political matters is often offloaded onto commissions of inquiry.

For example, while I understand the need for an independent anti-corruption agency and other measures to fight graft, we conveniently ignore how the Auditor-General’s reports detailing rampant corruption and blatant criminality (not irregular expenditure as the elite want us to believe) are ignored year after year.

What difference will these measures bring when you still have leaders and officials with malign influence on procurement procedures?

The bickering against the Zondo report and President Ramaphosa will grow louder and dominate the South African political landscape over the next few months.

We should consider the advice of former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, who once noted that integrity in public spaces is indispensable.

  • Professor Sethulego Matebesi is an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State. He covers different current affairs topics including political and social issues, social movements and protests as well as community-mining, company conflict and local municipal governance.

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Opinion

An attack on student activism is an attack on our democracy

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Universities remain one of the most unequal and untransformed spaces in South Africa.

One may argue that the country itself is one of the world’s youngest democracies and faces many of the challenges that new democratic states face.

After all, the apartheid regime was “demolished” just over five quinquennials ago.

However, one may also argue that after 27 years the country should not be facing the same challenges it was facing at the dawn of democracy.

One of the most urgent issues that South Africa is facing is the failure to invest in active youth empowerment in order to enable young people to be active citizens who may tackle our country’s wide array of issues.

This is characterised by the attack of active citizenship by student activists at South African universities.

At most institutions throughout the country, university management has criminalised activism so as to easily get away with the failed project of transformation and social injustice.

The last seven years and a half have been defined by mass protests of the ongoing #FeesMustFall movement.

As we may all know, the #FeesMustFall movement is a student-led protest movement which began in 2015.

This saw a massive eruption of protests at universities across the country in a movement that redefined politics in post-apartheid South Africa and presented the evidence of a “born-free” generation telling their own story and leading discourse as well as action on transforming South Africa through the quest of free and accessible education.

After seven years, the concerns of the first #FeesMustFall generation of students are still very visible in society.

Although relative accessibility has increased due to a slight boost in public and private sector funding, many issues such as accessible, safe and secure student accommodation, food insecurity on campuses, decolonised university curricula and first-generation entry into universities still remain present.

But why has the #FeesMustFall movement lost momentum over the years?

Universities in South Africa as well as the government successfully quashed the movement by harassing and victimising student leaders and activists.

A 2019 investigation report by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate revealed that over 33 million South African rand was spent spying on #FeesMustFall activists during the 2016-17 academic calendars.

Many student activists also attested to their phones being tapped and their places of residence and those of their loved ones being put under surveillance during the period.

In order to win the fight against the #FeesMustFall movement, universities such as the University of the Free State (UFS) adopted strategies to intimidate and victimise student leaders.

In this way, they were actively infringing upon the right to protest which is enshrined in Section 17 of the Constitution, which states: “Everyone has the right, peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions.”

This is to be done peacefully and without weapons.

On March 30, 2022, UFS vice chancellor Professor Francis Petersen wrote an article titled ‘When a protest is not a protest but a crime’.

In the article, Petersen narrates the challenges faced by South African universities while strongly condemning student protests on the UFS and University of Kwazulu-Natal campuses.

On the surface level, it may seem as if this article is a genuine expression of concern about issues faced by universities throughout the country.

Unfortunately, for many student activists and student leaders, the article in subject is a manifestation of the continued attack on student activism and the victimisation of student activists at South African universities.

This article serves to outline the strategic and organised syndicate by the “old guard” collective, which seeks to crush student activism on all fronts on its campuses in order to replace it with prefect-like anointed leadership in student representation.

This collective includes government and university officials in different capacities.

They have used and are using different tools and tactics to quell activism on campuses.

As part of the fourth generation of #FeesMustFall activists, I have seen first-hand the unfair university managements’ response during peaceful demonstrations and protests at the UFS campus.

Private security companies are hired and they brutalise students engaging in peaceful protests.

It is needless to say that most universities face the same issues every year.

While we may attest that some of the issues leading to protests are sector challenges that have little to do with registration, most of the issues are operational challenges that are created by universities themselves in light of incompetence.

Issues such as on-campus and off-campus accommodation for students have been prominent during registration periods.

The UFS itself has only 5 790 beds on the Bloemfontein campus while it has over 32 000 students enrolled.

Very little has been done to fix this matter.

Accreditation of off-campus student accommodation has also been failing at the UFS for over three years.

Other issues such as verification of funding of students between the financial aid office and the finance office are always prominent every year and affect predominantly disadvantaged students.

These operational issues could easily be solved through consultative dialogue with activists and student leaders to find sustainable and efficient models.

But, no!

Universities continue to criminalise activism and harass student leaders.

The UFS has guidelines to operationalise the right to protest.

According to the said guidelines, “the UFS is committed to not only protecting or tolerating, but also enabling and indeed fostering protest.”

Yet, in 2021, the UFS took out a court interdict to ensure that student activists, including those affiliated to the South African Students Congress (SASCO), EFF Student Command and even the Student Representative Council (SRC) could not carry out their fundamental purpose of representing students views and protecting their interests.

Twenty-four students were arrested at a protest on campus and spent time in prison.

Although the university withdrew the charges in February 2022, the intention was not to serve justice against criminals, but to intimidate and victimise students and their leaders into silence.

On February 23, 13 student activists including myself were arrested at a peaceful demonstration regarding late allocation of students’ allowances.

We spent multiple days in holding.

Contrary to what Petersen claims, the situation on South African university campuses is not a situation of criminality.

It is a result of the old-guard tactics that have made it difficult for organised activism to continue, leaving students and their leaders with no option except adopting guerrilla activism for their voices to be heard.

Such tactics should be seen as nothing more than institutionalised vigilantism that seeks to undermine the highest law in the land through legal means.

Although Section 35 of the Higher Education Act, No. 101 of 1997, as amended, compels all institutions of public higher education in South Africa to have SRCs as part of their governing structures, they do not compel universities to have capacitated and conscious representatives of students.

For this reason, universities in South Africa are attacking and quelling all forms of organised activism in order for the SRC to be merely a box to tick on their campuses.

In this way, they can do as they please with the lives and future of students, with no capacitated student activists to keep them accountable or ensure sustainable transformation.

These efforts by universities are part of their fight against the #FeesMustFall movement, which continues to this day in many forms and shapes.

Stances such as those of Petersen are a danger to society because they threaten the fundamental principles upon which our democracy is built.

Such views threaten free speech, the right to education, expression and organised protest.

There is no question that student movements have played an important role in South Africa’s path to and development as a democracy throughout the years.

Organisations such as NUSAS, SASO and SASCO ensured that South Africa’s gross apartheid policies were kept on the agenda in international advocacy spaces.

In addition to this, the #FeesMustFall movement ensured that relative access to higher education is not only for the rich and privileged in South Africa.

In conclusion, institutions of higher learning that criminalise activism directly render freedom and democracy immaterial.

If solutions to the country’s sector problems in higher education are to be found, it will be through collaborative and sustainable engagements with stakeholders in the sector alongside student activists and leaders.

Any other means that claim to be putting forward solutions by criminalising the expression of those issues are mere criminality.

  • Siphilangenkosi Dlamini is an undergraduate student in political governance and transformation at the University of the Free State. A student activist and researcher, he is also the author of the book ‘Magic and Other Authentic Experiences’.

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Opinion

Time to protest against protests

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It is becoming increasingly difficult for institutions of higher learning in South Africa to maintain the delicate balancing act of finding sustainable funding solutions amid mounting pressures caused by rapidly altering learning and teaching environments, dwindling government subsidies and the massification of higher education.

And uncontrolled, violent student protests might just be the final blow that sends many tertiary institutions over the precipice.

There is no doubt that student protests have over the years played a vital part in South Africa’s journey towards and maturation as a democracy.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, student organisations such as NUSAS, SASO and later SASCO kept South Africa’s human rights violations on the international agenda through unrelenting campaigns and protests.

And more recently, the #FeesMustFall movement in 2015 and 2016 has raised important awareness around ensuring access to education for students from the lowest-earning households.

The recent spate of violent protests on some university campuses, however, seems to transcend the boundaries of what can rightfully be termed as “protest action”.

When students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the Durban University of Technology caused severe physical damage and disrupted classes at the beginning of the year, UKZN vice-chancellor, Professor Nana Poku, condemned their actions in no uncertain terms as “organised crime”.

And he is right.

This kind of behaviour is nothing but opportunistic criminality in the guise of legitimate protest.

A few weeks after the violence erupted on campuses in KwaZulu-Natal, students on the University of the Free State (UFS) Qwaqwa campus went on a similar rampage, throwing stones at protection officers, vandalising buildings and raiding the university dining hall.

There are distinct differences between these acts and the majority of past student protests.

In most cases, current issues represent a much narrower interest than in the past, affecting only a certain section of the student population, and often revolving around the administrative processes concerning funding.

At UKZN, the main issue seems to have been students demanding to register even though they had historical debt.

At the UFS Qwaqwa campus, it was about a decision by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to pay accommodation allowances for students residing off campus directly to landlords and not to students themselves.

Apart from affecting a relatively small number of students, the “fight” was not per se with university management.

Universities South Africa (USAf) pointed out that many of the issues raised by students this year were actually sector challenges and fell outside the control of tertiary institutions.

Regardless of this, institutions regularly bend over backwards in an attempt to find workable interim solutions and making financial concessions to accommodate affected students.

Professor Poku relates how at UKZN the concessions made towards students with historical debts amounted to more than R1 billion.

At the UFS, apart from similar concessions, we also offered students allowances for food and books amounting to more than R71 million this year, while they are waiting for their NSFAS subsidies to be released – a major impact on cashflow management.

Despite these gestures of goodwill, a small group of aggrieved students still went ahead with violent acts, causing millions of rands of damage on campus and creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear.

University campuses today are vastly different spaces from what they used to be in the 1970s and 1980s, as a result of drastic and far-reaching changes in the educational landscape over the past few decades.

Access to higher education has opened up and is no longer restricted to high-income households.

The total number of students enrolled at higher education institutions increased by almost 70 percent between 2002 and 2020, growing to just more than one million in number.

Coupled with that, tertiary institutions have gone through radical transformation processes, ensuring that they not only embrace diversity, but respect human rights and social justice through fair process and policy.

At the UFS, for example, we have had well-considered, comprehensive transformation over several years in all spheres of operation, enabling us to become an institution where diverse people feel a sense of common purpose and where the symbols and spaces, systems and daily practices all reflect commitment to openness and engagement.

We also have various initiatives to ensure that students are successful in their studies, ranging from tutorial programmes to language, writing and psychological support.

Policies and structures are continuously being implemented and reviewed to embrace social justice in all its forms, with deliberate dialogue opportunities and avenues created for raising concerns and addressing them.

At the UFS, student success is a social justice imperative.

Great care is also taken to involve our student leadership in governance on all levels, with a high level of student participation in all UFS governing structures.

Despite all the different recourses available to them, and a genuine culture of participation and caring cultivated on our campuses, disgruntled splinter groups in the student body still routinely reach for the most destructive weapon in their arsenal of options, namely violent protests.

These protest actions also often seem to jump the gun, as they happen in tandem with and despite fruitful, progressive negotiations with elected student leaders.

Not only is this incredibly frustrating – it disrespects the rights and wishes of the overwhelming majority of students, and completely challenges the notion of “negotiation and engagement in good faith”.

There are no winners in the wake of ill-considered, violent acts of vandalism.

Offending students are no closer to a solution – in fact, they may find themselves suspended and in trouble with the law to boot.

By disrupting classes and preventing access to campuses, they are effectively robbing their fellow students of the opportunity to work towards obtaining a qualification.

Affected institutions are impacted in their ability to provide quality education to students and in fulfilling their wider society-focused mandate.

On top of that, potential donors and investors in the South African higher education sector are discouraged.

The sustainability and very survival of higher education institutions are ultimately at stake, as especially small and medium-sized universities simply cannot continue to bear the financial and operational burden that each violent protest brings.

It has become necessary to take a tough stance against offenders who perpetrate senseless acts of violence and place students and staff members in danger on our campuses.

At the UFS, we have always been very accommodating towards protesting students, not only as a constitutional right, but our approach in dealing with student misconduct has a strong element of restorative justice.

But we have decided to take a hard-line approach against the offenders in these latest acts of violence and destruction – opposing bail and instituting emergency disciplinary processes against them, resulting in immediate suspensions and sanctions which could lead to expulsion.

We need to send a clear message that blatant acts of criminality will simply not be tolerated on university campuses.

We also appeal to political parties under whose banners many of these destructive activities are undertaken to publicly condemn these acts and to call their members to order.

Throughout the course of history, we have come to associate university campuses with arenas where free speech is encouraged, and social ills are pointed out.

This role should be cherished, continued and encouraged – “reclaiming” back the university campuses as spaces for discourse.

But equally important is the responsibility to use your right to freedom of expression in such a way that you do not violate the rights of other individuals or jeopardise the continued operation of the very institution you all form part of – and, by implication, negatively affecting the wider interests of the society it serves.

The role of universities is, after all, not only to provide good workers and innovative thinkers for the job market.

We need to cultivate good citizens, who can make a meaningful difference to society.

Teaching and encouraging mutual respect should be a vital part of any university curriculum.

By letting criminality go unpunished and not speaking out to these acts, we are contributing towards a culture of entitlement, where people readily resort to criminal acts when they do not get what they believe they are entitled to.

This cuts directly across what institutions for higher learning aim to achieve and bodes for a dangerous future.

  • Professor Francis Petersen is the rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State

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Opinion

Operation Dudula confirms we are a country in real trouble

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Unbidden, the spectre of a failed state haunts the contemporary imagination of South Africa.

State responsibility and accountability have been piecemeal, with the citizenry of South Africa is left to fend for itself, as organs of state have grounded to a halt due to historical missteps in securing our physical and knowledge infrastructures, and contemporary endemic mismanagement of vital resources.

Many have warned us of the spiralling road to purgatory – Justice Malala, the Arch, Kader Asmal, Thabo Mbeki, Athol Williams.

And many social phenomena have been harbingers of a South Africa in violent transition – the Marikana massacre; roiling xenophobic attacks that have maimed particularly African transnationals; rising unemployment, particularly among the youth; and the militarisation of the state in “defence of order and the rule of law” during COVID-19.

In this firepit of uncertainty exacerbated by a lengthy state of emergency in response to a global pandemic, South Africa’s destitute have been embattled psychologically, physically, emotionally and financially.

Survival – life – is not guaranteed.

A multivalent and multipronged response has been constrained, as various government departments lack the political will, knowledge and sense of deep responsibility and accountability towards the people.

The gravity and sheer overwhelm that comes with recognising this thin knife-edge we are teetering on has led to South Africa cycling between mass inertia and rabble-rousing rebellions, literally and otherwise, that agitate for a reorganisation of the social order.

How do we uphold the value of life?

Operation Dudula, like many other social movements in the country, foregrounds the vast, seemingly insurmountable obstacles we face in living lives of and with dignity in South Africa.

They respond to the question: “How do we uphold the value of life, no matter race, creed, nationality or religion, when we as South Africans are annihilated on the throne of a hetero-patriarchal, capitalist democratic state that has lost favour among those who matter – the people?”

Listening closely to the rhetoric from the face of Operation Dudula, Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini, one hears the lion roaring and, like so many before him, he uses hyper-masculine and performative tropes of protector, provider, hustler and gangster as swirling metaphors tempered by “the rule of law” to assert that South Africa is for South Africans.

Using unsubstantiated claims that pit illegal foreigners against local South Africans, the messiness and complex contextual nature of criminal activity, inclusive of intent, range of crimes and the identity of perpetrators, are reduced to legality or illegality of citizenship.

Yet statistics do not support the suggestion that crime is being driven by illegal foreigners or undocumented migrants – the leading majority of our male prison population is South African.

While the existence of Operation Dudula is becoming a sustained and vocal threat to the veneer of “business as usual” in the country and to the lives of non-nationals, there are seeds of potential cast among the operation’s challenges.

However, this potential will be wasted and destroyed if we do not recognise and collectively respond to the:

* inter-related and inter-dependent nature of South Africa’s contemporary state of affairs;

* power inherent in an active citizenry that understands that I am my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, irrespective of socially constructed, performed and maintained markers of difference; and

* collective psychological and emotional trauma that undergirds our interactions with each other, and “the other”.

We are a country in trouble

Our xenophobic responses to perceived and real threats in South Africa over the past two decades confirm that stereotyping and scapegoating are part of rudimentary attempts to eradicate these threats to self, and to effectively disarm them.

However, history also shows that annihilation of the other does not secure one’s self.

Instead, the sublimation and vanquishing of the other has detrimental effects on a thinking-feeling human being whose righteous logic of “being right” cannot withstand the internal reckoning that will come from annihilating another.

As Hemphill states, “each death and each riot activate another memory of another life lost without justice or reason; this is how trauma unhealed haunts and accumulates, re-emerging and reanimating the body. It does not disappear.”

We are a country in trouble. We are a world troubled.

And if we are to survive this as a collective, not as divided parts of the collective, we will have to critically question and consciously resist years of indoctrination and socialisation that assert that “might is right” – that fighting and going to war (on local and on foreign soil) is a righteous endeavour if one does so to protect the sovereignty of land, borders, bodies and ideologies.

The revolution will not be televised, for it is an internal one.

We have no map to chart the way forward as old-world orders dissolve; as the earth implodes under the heaviness of human waste and damage; and as humans continue to live desperate lives separated from the life-giving forces of nature and the divine feminine.

Moving forward, those resident in South Africa will have to fashion new social compacts that uphold the sovereignty of individuals and their right to dignified life, supported by collective and individual interventions that supersede the state.

Ordinary citizens will have to free themselves from mental shackles as they actively re-root and reroute themselves in ancient philosophies and ways of being that extend beyond one originary myth.

We will have to trust and grow the potential that exists within an uncertain world and trust the humanness within self and others to guide us to each other; to draw closer when every fibre of our being rages against that shattering of physical and ideological distance.

We are not without ordinary examples of this work.

My research and those of my students among African transnational migrants demonstrate alternative ways of interacting that support rather than degrade the financial, emotional and spiritual well-being of citizen and non-citizen.

Born out of need, acts of connection and micro-resistance reorder, question and negate the jarring and dissonant narratives and realities of difference that were part of South Africa’s foundations.

Through love, kindness and mutual support and guidance, South Africans and other nationals reframe the reality of living in South Africa, exposing an ethic of care and commitment to a collective well-being that is not based on socially constructed forms of inclusion and exclusion, or politically orchestrated forms of responsibility.

The existence of Operation Dudula and the Gift of the Givers, for example, confirms that we have work to do across generations in this country.

Our work includes the painstaking process of healing our individual and collective psyches and the re-envisioning of a future that is supportive of all life.

We need to serve life and make our country and “the world safe for human differences” (Benedict).

The time to evolve, consciously, is upon us.

  • Professor Joy Owen is the head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of the Free State.

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