South Africa has reached a terrible stage in its democracy, where both executive and parliament have failed and courts try to hold each of these arms of government in check, warns former finance minister Trevor Manuel.
Delivering the annual Neil Aggett memorial lecture at independent Grahamstown school Kingswood College, Manuel said it became clear the country was in trouble when the Constitutional Court last year proclaimed that not even the head of state understood his oath of office.
Manuel was referring to the court’s finding that both President Jacob Zuma and parliament had failed to uphold the constitution when they had neither defended nor upheld the authority of then public protector Thuli Madonsela.
Manuel said that while the courts could hold the two arms of government in check they could not lead the country. They could only respond to requests from those who chose to litigate.
“Leadership is meant to come from the executive, overseen by the legislature. Those two arms have failed. They fail to even observe the decisions of the court.”
He described the constitution as a magnificent document bound to wither and die unless kept alive by a commitment to the values it enshrined.
He said the constitution started with a premise to honour those, like Aggett, who had sacrificed in the past.
Aggett was a doctor, trade union organiser and an outspoken anti-apartheid activist who died in police detention in 1982.
The police at the time claimed he committed suicide.
Aggett had attended school at Kingswood, which for the past 11 years annually celebrates its former pupil with the memorial lecture.
Manuel said the school’s attempts to remember Aggett were remarkable at a time when South Africans were so hell-bent on forgetting the past.
“Despite a formidable and strong constitution, we run the risk of repeating some of the worst excesses of that past.”
Manuel said Aggett had lived simply, in a simple cottage without water or electricity, and without any regard for acquiring wealth.
He had assisted poor workers to organise during the day without any expectation of payment, and was a trauma doctor at night.
He contrasted this with the likes of Atul Gupta, who he described as a corrupt rogue whose wealth signified nothing but destruction.
He said it was a deep tragedy of the constitution that South Africans generally didn’t know it, engage with it or understand it.