There is a delicious irony at the heart of the controversy generated by the half-baked intellectually dubious drivel dished up recently by tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu.

Unless you have been hiding under a rock you will be aware that Sisulu took aim in an IOL jeremiad against her own government, in which she has continuously served since 1994, the constitution she voted for in 1996 and has sworn to uphold and defend, and the judiciary tasked with enforcing it.

The contradiction was discovered by the intellectual sleuth and Business Day/BusinessLIVE columnist Gareth van Onselen. On the one hand, Sisulu derided “mentally colonised African” judges who “lick the spittle of those who claim superiority”. Yet, as Van Onselen discovered, Sisulu plagiarised the bulk of her article from a British high political priest, emblematic of the dread coloniser itself: former Conservative Party attorney-general Dominic Grieve.

But of course Sisulu’s rent-an-ideology stance has nothing to do with the sins she claims have been committed under the cover of our “neocolonial constitution … a foreign inspiration” in her words. It is all about ambition.

Neither plagiarism nor serial failures in the half dozen portfolios Sisulu has occupied over the past 28 years is likely to see her removed. Not even the stinging rebuke of acting chief justice Raymond Zondo is likely to lead to Sisulu’s exit from office. And the man credited with the passage of our “neocolonial constitution”, president Cyril Ramaphosa, is unlikely to take any steps against Sisulu’s serial abuse of office.

Though, like Sisulu he swore to uphold and defend the constitution, he is generally missing in action when it is under attack. And while judges, the constitution and government itself are the blatant targets of Sisulu’s borrowed vitriol, the real target is the man she seeks to supplant, Ramaphosa himself.

If the president cannot defend either the constitution he paraded into being nor safeguard his own office from fifth column ministers, it might be said (to borrow with attribution from another Tory high priest, Norman Lamont), “he is in office but not in power”.

The Sisulu contretemps comes at a fraught moment, on the back of a series of recent events that have rent the fabric of the nation ever more asunder. The inevitable death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a reminder that none of the original heroes of democracy are now around to offer moral leadership grounded by selfless example undergirded by self-reflection.

The day after Tutu’s memorial service parliament was put to the torch. Much murk remains on the cause of the fire and the clear and crushing failure to cauterise its spread and the devastation of priceless heritage and history. It is likely, in the mediocrity we have come to expect as our national norm, that no-one (beyond the arsonist) will be held accountable for the serial lapses and failures witnessed at this essential key point of our national life.

But one should not romanticise parliament. I left its precincts for the final time in 2009, noting that the lack of answerability by the executive to MPs, the smothering of investigate reports, from the arms deal to Travelgate, and especially the disgraceful conduct of various speakers who have run the place as a sort of branch office of Luthuli House, had eroded its essential purpose. It was a veritable Potemkin Village, whose outer architectural magnificence concealed its hollowed out inner substance.

One of the clues to how parliament was sidelined from its core constitutional purpose of ensuring accountability and holding the executive’s feet to the fire was revealed in a paper published at the height of Thabo Mbeki’s presidency in 2000. SA was then bathed in the warm afterglow of the Mandela era, which had ended the year before.

Nobody likes a party spoiler, least of all if its leadership is to borrow from Sisulu’s well-thumbed book of Leninisms, drawn from the “suspect class”. However as leader of the Democratic Party back then I thought a singular piece of research by DP official James Myburgh deserved the widest airing. Thus the party published his paper, “All power to the Party”, which for the first time set out the details of cadre deployment and how — in the author’s words — SA had seen “the creation of a parallel authority to the constitution”, with deployed cadres becoming the means by which “the key levers of power” across the whole state and society would be brought under the heel of the ANC. At the time, the deployment committee was chaired by one Jacob Zuma.

At the time civil society was sedated, living off the feelgood factor of the miracle of 1994. The excellent  Zapiro published an unflattering cartoon of me foaming at the mouth suggesting the “end of the world is nigh”. Business Day, then edited by Jim Jones, judged the DP attempt to show, with detailed examples, the capture of and erosion of the state by party cadres as rendering the party “guilty of McCarthyism”. Beyond derision, a silence greeted the details in the DP document. How could things go wrong, it was perhaps reasoned, when the motive and history of the new government was so pure, and their predecessors so execrable?

The rest is history, as the hundreds of pages of the first volume of the Zondo commission report make clear — a cadre deployment committee did the dirty work of the ANC. From board memberships of devastated state-owned companies to directors-general and even appointees to the Constitutional Court, all were first pre-cleared by the ANC deployment committee and then nodded through by the so-called constitutional safeguard bodies intended to promote independence.

Twenty one years after “All Power to the Party” was published, DA MP Leon Schreiber shone a light on just a three-year harvest (2018 to 2021) from the cadre deployment committee. He tabulated that two Constitutional Court justices, one Supreme Court of Appeal judge, two Eastern Cape jurists, dozens of directors-general and deputy directors-general of state departments and 50-plus appointees on state boards, funds, regulators, commissions, agencies and even the Government Printing Works, were not only nominated by the ANC committee but were appointed to office afterward. Ostensibly by an outside appointing authority.

Given the ravaged nature of the state in 2022 Schreiber’s sleuth work has at least garnered some attention and even respectful comment. But not everyone is convinced of the clear and present danger posed by this “parallel authority to the constitution”, whose existence and purport was first revealed more than two decades back.

For example, Rebecca Davis, a journalist at Daily Maverick, described as “controversial” the DA claim that the minutes of the committee prove that party cadres rather than qualified and independent professionals are prioritised by the committee. And she quotes another source that suggests “the DA has slightly over egged the pudding in its expressions of outrage”. Her defence was that the deployment committee “did not actually succeed in placing all its preferred judges”, which is surely insufficient in the face of a Leninist practice that has no place in a constitutional democracy.

According to the cadre deployment minutes, Sisulu made several star turns before it in her various ministerial roles. Instead of her self-serving piffle on “lick spittle” judges and our “neoliberal” constitution, a moment of honest reflection might suggest another insight to consider. Lenin’s “democratic centralism” and its rigid implementation has been at the heart of the destruction of the state.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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