by Iswamo Kapalu

It’s always interesting to hear the President talk about democracy. It serves, at times, as a window into a mind whose thoughts on the subject rarely pass into the public without filtering through the team of lawyers that prepare him for his endless court dates.

But every once in a while, he lets his guard down. He outlines, perhaps truthfully, but possibly not, what it is that he believes about the nature and function of democracy. These moments, sometimes reserved for those whose grasp of isiZulu is beyond rudimentary, are important for understanding how he, as the head of a democracy, views his role.

Take his 75th birthday party, for example. It was lavish affair reported to cost nearly R8 million. It was held in Kliptown – where just recently protests erupted over housing availability. There, he was joined in celebrating his seven and a half decades by the usual suspects; African National Congress (ANC) Youth League members who stretch both their party regalia and the definition of “youth”; uMkhonto weSizwe “veterans” and; the ANC Women’s League.

After the prayers and defiant speeches came the man of the moment. And while the previous week’s protest marches dominated the backdrop and reporting on his birthday speech, one sentiment stood out for me. To paraphrase, it was the president’s contention that those who keep taking him to court don’t understand democracy. He alleged that it is undemocratic to extend debates to the courts. Further alleging that “no book on democracy” says that this strange phenomenon is a part of normal democracy.

Except that this isn’t true. This strange phenomenon is called judicial review. The book that says it’s a normal part of democracy, is called the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. Anywhere else there would be wide condemnation of a president, in a democracy, who publicly questions the constitutional power of the Courts to review executive and legislative actions. But I suspect that the country as a whole is suffering from condemnation fatigue.

This week we got another glimpse. This time it was at the World Economic Forum and was, again, in response to protests against his presidency. According to the President, the booing that prevented him from speaking at the COSATU Worker’s Day rally on Monday were signs of a healthy democracy. Inadvertently, the President’s remarks highlighted his minimalistic understanding of democracy. So far as it isn’t a police state, where he angrily orders the police to clamp down on dissent, we have a healthy democracy.

And while I’m grateful for the democratic space to be able to write to my heart’s content of my discontent, I must disagree.

Protests are themselves born out of the assessment of the people that democratic institutions are unable to yield satisfactory results. They are a refuge in times of institutional failure, not the norm in healthy and functional states.

The possibility that his defences accurately reflect his views on democracy present the worrying prospect that to the President, the “constitutional” in “constitutional-democracy” is silent.

Our democracy deserves better than that.