I was in New York the day after the November 2004 US presidential election. George W Bush’s re-election — by a far wider margin than the polls had predicted — was of immediate interest. However, it was a column by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof, published that day in the New York Times, that set out for the ages, and polities everywhere, an essential truth.
As an explanation for why millions of farmers, factory workers and waitresses ended up voting utterly against their interests for Republican candidates, he suggested the secret lay in the right wing push on “values”, while the left emphasised issues.
Of course, by contrast to the demolition derby of Trumpism, the Bush era suggests a sepia-tinged Cadillac civility. But the formula remains unchanged, and even the last election results suggest it is still a winning mix. Every post-election survey of the 2020 battleground states suggests that but for his calamitous handling of the coronavirus crisis, Donald Trump would have won re-election comfortably; the party’s success in all the undercard contests on election day confirms this.
In the US Trump is being tried in the Senate for impeachable offences relating to the storming of that body’s chamber and the Capitol on January 6. Yet because of his huge hold on his party, whose voters overwhelmingly believe the election was stolen by President Joe Biden, few Republican senators will vote to convict him.
Of course, Trump is the former president, out of office, but hardly out of power in his own party. And those within it who cross him face a perilous electoral future.
By contrast, President Cyril Ramaphosa holds the highest office in our land, in which capacity he delivered his fourth state of the nation address. By contrast, he barely seems to exercise much power in his own organisation. And in one-party dominant SA that is a distinction with a crucial difference.
Lest we forget, Masina offered to resign on Ramaphosa’s election yet remains tightly attached to his post, and consorting with his organisation’s opponents is likely to only embolden his position.
Malema and his legal counsel, Dali Mpofu, also offered the gods of irony no end of pleasure in consorting with Zuma, who has decided to illegally defy the Constitutional Court demand that he obey the summons to appear before the Zondo state capture commission.
It was Malema and Mpofu’s EFF that was the first applicant in the Constitutional Court judgment of March 31 2016 that found Zuma in breach of his oath of office — the proximate cause of which was the very improvements to the Nkandla homestead where Malema helicoptered last week. That landmark judgment was not just a legal warning to the constitutionally delinquent Zuma, it also binds the current president to his highest obligations.
There was in Washington a clear signal from an embattled Republican, who has earned the fury of Trump for voting to impeach him, on what this obligation is all about. GOP house whip and number three Republican in the chamber Liz Cheney was this past weekend censured by her own party in her home state of Wyoming.
Her riposte ripples far beyond the mountain fastness of her state to offer a universal formula of prioritising the constitution ahead of the party. She said: “My vote to impeach was compelled by the oath I swore to the constitution. Wyoming citizens know that this oath does not bend or yield to politics or partisanship.”
The Nkandla judgment anticipated this statement with granular particularity to our own head of state and his obligations. Written with immediate application to the wayward Zuma, it binds here and now the man who, by dint of further irony, is heralded as the architect of our “constitutional project”, as the court dubbed our instrument and its arrangements.
Whether it is Ramaphosa’s silence on his compromised secretary-general announcing there is nothing wrong with Zuma disobeying the court, or his own tepid call for Zuma to be afforded “time to reflect” on his illegal act, the president acts as a lowly ward heeler. He balances factions, corrals votes and chases an elusive party unity.
However, the court had no regard for these lesser imperatives. Rather, in its 2016 judgment, it ruled that the president, as personification of this nation’s constitutional project, had a higher and unique duty. It held that “his is indeed the highest calling, to the highest office in the land … only upon him has the constitutional obligation to uphold, defend and respect the constitution as the supreme law of the republic been expressly imposed”.
Chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng went from the general to the particular: “Whoever, and whatever poses a threat to our sovereignty, peace and prosperity, he must fight.” Note the invocation — fight does not cower, confront or appease forces and individuals who undermine the constitutional order.
Beyond Zuma cocking a snoot at the highest court and its rulings around which Ramaphosa hedges and equivocates, there is the open sewer of revelations emanating from the Zondo commission and the illegal, arguably treasonous, activities of the State Security Agency.
In 2018 Ramaphosa was given the details of this saga and he sat on it, did nothing except keep in the executive the bag carrier (Bongani Bongo) and the civil servant in charge of the wholesale looting and blatant misuse of state funds and resources (Arthur Fraser). In different offices, both remain at the heart of the Ramaphosa administration.
This is not the fightback the court mandated. Indeed, noteworthy in that binding judgment was the duty of the head of state to protect the state and not the party. As Cheney remarked, “not bending to politics and partisanship” is compelled by the oath of office, here and everywhere.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
Featured in The Business Day