President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday that attempts to undermine the democratic order must be countered. He cited corruption, the fire at parliament and attacks on the integrity of the judiciary among the ways in which it was coming under threat.
“We must safeguard against any and all efforts to diminish our hard-won democracy — whether these efforts take the form of corruption in state-owned enterprises, the subversion of our law-enforcement agencies, the sabotage of our economic infrastructure, or attacks on the independence and integrity of our judiciary,” Ramaphosa wrote in his weekly newsletter.
“We need to protect our constitution, our democratic state and the electoral process from anyone who wants to weaken our democracy and deny the South African people their hard-won freedom.”
The president was writing after a week in which he has faced calls to dismiss Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu for an extraordinary set of articles in which she claimed the constitution has proven nothing but a palliative for the poor and accused African judges of being “mentally colonised” nearly three decades after the end of apartheid.
The remarks have deeply offended the judiciary, with acting chief justice Raymond Zondo terming the slur the worst insult the institution has endured to date.
Ramaphosa’s letter marks the first time the president has personally referred to the row, although Justice Minister Ronald Lamola and Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele have expressed their dismay in strong terms.
It was Ramaphosa’s first newsletter of 2022, and threaded together his response to events that have marked the first weeks of the year, including the fire and the release of the Zondo report on state capture two days later.
He said South Africans watched in horror as flames engulfed parliament on 2 January, and called for the criminal investigation to be thorough and swift.
“We need to ensure that these investigations are thorough and concluded without delay. The country needs to know what happened.”
The president said the fire occurred a day after and mere metres from the memorial service for Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
“Apart from the proximity of St George’s Cathedral and parliament. what connects these two events is that each reminds us of what brings us together as South Africans: our democracy,” he wrote.
“We despair at the devastation of our parliamentary buildings, because they are the seat of our democracy. They are the place where our new democratic constitution was adopted just over 25 years ago, and where hundreds of transformative laws have been passed.”
Sisulu has sought to cast her initial article, in which she likened judges to “house negroes” as a contribution to discourse on democracy and the constitution, but Lamola rubbished this in an opinion piece written in reply.
“There is discourse and then there is attack,” he wrote in Business Day.
“Referring to judicial officers by using crude racial tropes cannot pass off as a debate. Attacking the very institution that is to uphold the Constitution goes against the grain of everything that we wanted to change from before 1994.
“Insinuating that judges who have assumed the high calling of judicial office in our democratic era are mentally colonised, is a personal attack that cannot be condoned under any circumstances,” Lamola continued.
“In addition, calling any Black person — whether a judge or not — a ‘house negro’ is insulting.”
He added that nowhere in her writing did Sisulu cite a single court ruling in which oppressive or unjust laws in general or oppressive laws based on race and sexism were enforced.
Lamola noted that there was “a pervasive narrative in our body politic which characterises the constitution as a sell-out”, but asked how this could be when it was based on the Freedom Charter.
Sisulu’s articles have been read by political observers as the opening salvo in her bid to stand against Ramaphosa when he seeks re-election as leader of the ANC later this year.
Ramaphosa said the recommendations of the Zondo commission would help the country to rebuild institutions subverted by state capture and to hold those responsible for doing this to account.
“The things that we have read in the Zondo commission report should strengthen our resolve to defend the institutions of our democracy, all the entities of our state, and indeed our constitutional democratic order,” he wrote.