There can be few people with whom Jacob Zuma must be more bitterly disappointed than chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. Sure, Thuli Madonsela might come close, but she was far more of an unknown quantity than Mogoeng was when Zuma appointed him in September 2011.

In 2011, Mogoeng was derided as exactly the sort of apparently compromised candidate a fatally compromised president would want. For example, Mogoeng had failed to recuse himself in a case in which his wife acted as a lawyer; he was relatively inexperienced (vastly so, compared to Dikgang Moseneke) and he had a record of awful decisions in rape cases, including cutting a sentence of a rapist he described as “tender”.

But once in office, Mogoeng has been a revelation, an inspiration even — for all but Zuma.

Last week, in delivering a judgment effectively telling speaker of parliament Baleka Mbete it was her constitutional duty to hold a secret ballot on the no-confidence vote against Zuma, Mogoeng seemed nothing less than the embodiment of the country’s moral compass.

Mogoeng said MPs “are required to swear or affirm faithfulness to the republic and obedience to the constitution and laws. Nowhere does the supreme law provide for them to swear allegiance to their political parties.”

In other words, when a politician senses an inner conflict of party versus country, their “irrevocable undertaking” is to the people. It’s a duty that Zuma, as well as some ministers (think Bathabile Dlamini) treat as a mere suggestion.

Mogoeng repeated this theme, saying MPs must do all they can to “advance our constitutional project of improving the lives of all citizens, freeing their potential and generally ensuring accountability for the way things are done.”

Of course, if they struggle to grasp it, it’s because of the example from above. In 2015, speaking to ANC cadres, Zuma said: “I argued one time with someone who said the country comes first, and I said as much as I understand that I think my organisation, the ANC, comes first.”

From this vantage point, it’s easy to see why he axed Pravin Gordhan; and why he closes his eyes to Dlamini’s blunders. It’s a fatal myopia shared by many of his lieutenants.

Take education — the most critical department, should government be even vaguely serious about empowering poor black South Africans, rather than passively watching existing wealth patterns determine future opportunities.

Months ago, basic education minister Angie Motshekga got a damning report on how certain SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) members had sold teaching posts. Yet last month she said “no evidence points to Sadtu, which has been instrumental in improvements we have seen in rural and poor schools”.

The reality is the opposite. Sadtu has actually been instrumental in demolishing accountability in schools, facilitating shoddy teaching, sub-par standards and mismanagement.

Her own task team report on the jobs-for-cash scandal said explicitly that Sadtu “is in de facto control” of six of SA’s nine provinces — it has effectively captured the education system.

Sadtu’s choices for teaching posts are “not necessarily about competence and professional suitability but about militancy”, the report said.

Right here lies at least part of the answer to why the education system is in such a mess.

Yet the politician mandated to do what’s best for the country failed to break Sadtu’s stranglehold. With the ANC leadership race at a delicate point, clearly it’s more important not to alienate Sadtu’s 254,000 members.

This fails Mogoeng’s test by a mile. The reason SA is in such a bind is precisely the decisions taken for cravenly political reasons, in defiance of what is best for the country. If the politicians can’t live up to Mogoeng’s standards, they should
quietly resign.

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