Steven Friedman
Steven Friedman

Knowing when to smile or frown

Is it only us, or do all changing societies not know when to cheer and when to worry?

The latest example showing that South Africans often wring their hands at things we should cheer — and ignore problems we should wring our hands about — is the charges against Jackie Selebi and, before him, Jacob Zuma. In the view of many commentators and, perhaps, citizens, the charges are an enduring source of shame: media analysts are repeatedly asked about the “damage” this might do us internationally.

Besides the point that we really ought to care much more about what might damage us at home than about how events play abroad, why should the fact that our justice system seems to be working be a source of damage, rather than of pride and hope?

No society on Earth has ever succeeded in ridding itself of corruption in high places. In the United States, the planet’s only superpower, claims of scandal are ever present: only a few years ago, most of the US Congress was accused of dodgy practice while right now companies close to the current establishment are said to be making a fortune out of the Iraq war. In Britain, the mother of parliaments, the last Conservative government sunk under a tide of sleaze and New Labour is currently engaged in explaining away some of its ethical challenges.

New democracies with histories of inequality are likely to be particularly prone to corruption as people who lived in poverty find themselves exposed to the temptations of high office. And in our society, the temptations are even harder to avoid because businesses have tended to make a beeline for new politicians in an attempt to curry favour by means fair and foul.

All this means that we are not going to avoid corruption and it is therefore silly to wring our hands when we discover that some of our high-ups are accused of it — or, indeed, convicted of it, as a few members of the new ANC national executive have been.

Since we are bound to have corruption — and allegations that it is happening — there is no shame in the fact that some high-ups are accused of it. The shame would be appropriate only if we weren’t doing something about it. And it is difficult to see what more we could do than to charge people accused of it, even if they happen to be presidents of the ruling party or national police commissioners.

None of this, of course, means that Zuma or Selebi is guilty of anything. The first and most obvious reason why hand-wringing about the charges is inappropriate is that they may be innocent.

It should be trite to point out that we have courts because none of us knows whether an accused person is guilty until a judge has heard the evidence and weighed it. It is not trite because most of us insist on assuming, or at least debating, the guilt or innocence of accused people before the courts have had a chance to try their cases.

If we want a functioning justice system, we should try to cure ourselves of this habit and allow the courts to try cases. (After the judgement, we are, of course, entitled to say whether we think the court reached the right verdict — but that is very different to trying people in public before we have heard both sides of the story.) And this means that neither the Zuma nor the Selebi charges may tell us anything about corruption in high places because we do not yet know whether they did what they are accused of.

But what if it turns out that one or both did abuse public trust? Again, that is no cause for alarm, as long as the law is allowed to take its course. If high-profile public figures, whoever they are, are convicted in a fair trial, it not only shows that we are a society in which no one is above the law, but it is also likely to be a powerful deterrent to others who might be thinking of taking South Africa for a ride.

So, whether or not Zuma or Selebi broke the law, the fact that they are being charged should be seen as a sign of progress — evidence that the system is working. I cannot think of too many countries in which, less than 15 years after majority rule was achieved, it is possible for such senior figures to face charges in open court. In most other similar cases, corruption allegations are kept out of the public eye altogether or are the stuff of gossip, eroding public trust as people conclude that high-ups are above the law. If we can see both legal processes through to their conclusion, whatever the outcome, we will have done much to signal that, here, the law applies equally to all.

We may, of course, have reached this stage not because our politicians are deeply committed to the rule of law but because the prosecutions served some people in high places’ selfish motives. But so what? As this blog has suggested before, societies often begin doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. As long as we get used to applying the law equally to everyone, would it really matter if we started doing it because politicians were trying to settle scores?

So we should be relieved that we are doing something about alleged corruption. What, then, should we worry about?

First, the fact that the new ANC national executive has a sprinkling of members who have been found guilty of abusing public trust can send the wrong message. Yes, Tony Yengeni served his sentence and the Travelgate offenders have paid their fines. But there is a big difference between allowing people to get on with their lives and electing them to office, signalling that it is acceptable to place in positions of trust people who have abused that trust in the past.

Second, and perhaps more important, we should all be worried about the resolution adopted at Polokwane urging that the Scorpions be dissolved into the South African Police Service.

All sorts of fancy arguments can be found to support this move. But, as Njabulo Ndebele pointed out this week, disbanding an independent law-enforcement unit is surely going to make it harder to fight crime in high places. Equally important, it will send a signal to the society that units which go after high-placed officials and politicians are then closed down by those politicians. This will again create the suspicion that some people are trying to protect themselves from the law while leaving those without political connections to face its music.

So the system is working as it should right now. But we need to retain an independent investigating unit so that it can continue to work — and to protect us all from anyone who seeks to use high office not to serve us but to fleece us.

  • Vapour

    Great article. But it is also true that whilst Zuma and co. might detest the Scorpions and whilst the Scorpions are credited with bringing many untouchables to book, it usually is as a result of a citizen who informed the unit of illegal practices of an untouchable. Let’s not forget that it was Patricia De Lille who had the guts to stand up in parliament and set this ball rolling.

  • owen

    Well said. I guess Traps would disagree.

  • Lehlohonolo

    Indeed well said. I also think that the tendency to find fault and throw scorn at government because some corrupt officials have been uncovered, is contradictory. I do agree that it rather shows how our institutions are working, and not necessarily humbled to stooges of politicians.

    But i think the problem is that thing that was raised by Suresh… that fit to govern question. The efficacy of the system to up root filth, instead of vindicating its fitness to govern, adn therefore the fitness of those who oversees it, rather works to provide fertile ground for the succesful propagation of that “are they fit to govern” notion. Credits will naturally never be granted to the architects of the effective system – why? well, because they tend to fall within this “are they fit to rule” lot.

  • James

    I think South Africans have to be mindfull of various factors in our judiciary and this prosecuting authorirty body called “the scorpions”.

    Let me start by saying that this crime fighting body was established by President Thabo Mbeki in 1999 in an effort to fight those in the ANC who are more popular than him and who command respect amongst ANC members in general. Evidence will show that ever since the scorpion came into being it has only prosecuted ANC stalwarts who poses some sort of danger to Thabo Mbeki. It is a well known fact that TM was not eager to even appoint JZ as his deputy both in 1999 and 2004, in 1999 he offered the deputy president post to Mangosuthu Buthelezi who turned it down fortunately and again in 2004 Kgalema Motlante had to intervene to get Zuma invited by Mbeki to serve as deputy president of the country. This explains why it was so easy for Mbeki to fire Zuma just beacuse Shabir hab been convicted even though Zuma had not been formally charged himself.

    Now let us track foward to 2007, Aggliot admits to dealing in drugs and also agrees to testify against Selebi, Vusi Pikoli obtains a warrant of arrest against Selebi and Mbeki on learning of this, he fires Pikoli and then appoints Mpshe who cancels the warrant of arrest against Selebi. Now During the Polokwane conference Mpshe goes to media and tells the Public that a case against Zuma is very strong, post Polokwane conference and during holidays the scorpions charges Zuma and this happens while all the courts are closed, people have to remember that the Polokwane conference had resolved that the scorpions be desolved by June, therefore it was very critical for the scorpions and Mbeki to charge Zuma immediately before the implementation of the decision to desolve the scorpions takes effect at the ANC Lekgotla, the timing was too convenient to say the least.

    Now notice the different manner in which Mbeki handling the Selebi and Zuma matters, with Selebi he protected him, he did all he could to protect a druglord, but with Zuma he went all out to charge him, therefore the ANC is correct to say the judiciary is biased against comrade Jacob Zuma.

    Now another factor is that the judiciary is made up of apartheid prosecutors and judges who served under the apartheid government with distiction, they are same judges who found Allen Boesalk to be innocent, they are the same judges who saw nothing wrong with a white killing a black man and later excused his behaviour by saying he thought he was seeing a dog, these are the same judges who have just desolved the cahrges against Nel, however, had it been another comrade these charges would stick for seven to twenty because the mandate is to discredit the ANC and black people, that is why the DA cried fowl when Nel was arrested and other DA members sitting as judges freed Nel one of their own, therefore we don’t have a credible judiciary in this country.

    All I can say is I am ready as a black South African to defend the ANC and its president, I am ready to put my body in the line to defend my President against stupid corruption charges whereas white people who commit the same offences are let free to go, so drop these Zuma charges now because we will not let him be dragged to the racist courts.

  • Tman

    Knowing when to forgive or not. “But there is a big difference between allowing people to get on with their lives and electing them to office, signalling that it is acceptable to place in positions of trust people who have abused that trust in the past.” Steven, the only creature on earth that cannot forgive is human being. It will be easy for criminals to enter heaven through hole of a needle than intellectuals. People go to jail in order to be corrected from the evils of the past. When they come out, they have to prove themselves that they have learnt from their mistake. I do not know of a parent who shuts the door against his or her son after being released from prison. It is only intellectuals from media platforms that can cast the sins of people in stones for everyone to see. They act as if they do not have blood. Their hearts are made from heaven. Their hands can break no bones. One wonders the origins of the ideology of this non-forgiving society. I have never came across a book that says “How not to forgive”. So, where do these teachings come from?

    “Second, and perhaps more important, we should all be worried about the resolution adopted at Polokwane urging that the Scorpions be dissolved into the South African Police Service.” Steven, you might share some light in this scenario. The branding of NPA and Scorpions in public eye seems to be intertwined. They work closely to one another, as are twins. The NPA decide which cases to prosecute or not. My question: Why we do not see the same relationship between the NPA and the SAPS? The NPA should have not presented themselves as more of a sister to the Scorpions than SAPS. The relationship should be equal. It is ok for the evidence collected by the SAPS to be viewed with suspicion and be thrown out, but the other should be quickly thrown into independent judiciary to decide. I do not think people are naïve to note that there are certain individuals that can be protected in this political game. Case closed. The fate of the Scorpions has been decided. Steve, here is your last question. Why Blair stopped the investigation against the arms deal and no one in Britain questioned his intervention?

  • Paul Whelan

    Is this sunny summary justified?

    With each new item of news and each new denial by the office of the president, it has become very difficult to believe that President Thabo Mbeki and his supporters have not thought it their right to play fast and loose with the even-handed working of the law, and possibly much mcre besides. Had Mbeki won out at Polokwane, it is impossible to see what would prevented that from continuing or even worsening.

    But public statements by the winning side since are not reassuring. They seem to suggest only that it is now their turn.

    SA’s problem is permanent government in the executive and the factionalism and fictions that inevitably attend it.

    In reality, voters have no means to change the status quo or arguably even to affect the direction government takes to any degree. Some claim there will be a bigger majority than ever for the ANC in 2009; others predict larger numbers than ever of abstentions.

    Either way, it means more of the same.

  • Robert

    It’s a bit naïve, Steven, to say that “none of us knows whether an accused person is guilty until a judge” rules on it.

    Truth is absolute. An event either happened or it didn’t. However our confidence in our knowledge of an event is always uncertain. We can know something to be true with confidence, or probability, of anything between 0% and 100%. All a court result can do is push the confidence closer to 100%.

    It’s a bit like saying we can’t just assume that South Africa won the rugby world cup or even that it is raining in Cape Town today, because a judge hasn’t ruled on these things.

    So we do know that Zuma accepted gifts from Shaik and didn’t disclose this to Parliament. We don’t know this with enough confidence yet to send to send him to jail, but we do already know this with enough confidence to feel enduring shame. Undoubtedly it does us damage internationally. Hand-wringing about the charges is indeed appropriate.

  • MFB

    No, it doesn’t mean more of the same. Read James’s comment carefully.

    Mbeki, certainly, protected people in his administration up until the point that they were shown to be plausibly chargable with serious crimes, but then he allowed them to be charged.

    Zuma, as Friedman points out, appoints crooks to his National Working Committee. (Friedman underestimates the problem, forgetting that Nyanda, too, was shown to have accepted a bribe from Daimler-Chrysler; that’s why he had to resign from the Defence Force.) And, as James points out, Zuma’s supporters believe that it is all right to commit crimes, and you must not be charged for them, because you are in power. It is more than likely that this extends right up to the top of the Zuma cabal.

    This is an interesting article, actually. It almost restores my faith in Friedman.

  • Liansky

    Surprisingly balanced article. I never expected this from Friedman.

  • Stephen

    Firstly, in societies such as USA and Britain a whiff of corruption tends to bring out the media pack in force, absolutely no holds barred. The ability of opposition parties to demand inquiries is well established if there are charges to be answered the politician or senior civil servant will resign, and may only re-emerge into public life if the charges are proven false. [I can hear the wails of uproar we are not a mature democracy, and the comparison is not fair] But you can’t be half pregnant.

    Secondly, the first port of call for the majority of our politicians tainted by the whiff of corruption is generally to fall back on the favourites, racism, unrepresentative press regime, and in general victim mentality.

    Finally, in mature democracies threats to judges and the legal system would simply not be tolerated by the majority of citizens. Steven’s fallback position is not too dissimilar to Traps, concepts such as young fragile democracy, our colonial history, and legacy of Apartheid. Our wide inequalities across society, while these are real historical and continuing hurdles to development of our fractured country. The leadership within the country does not seem up to the challenges of forging a modern open society. We appear to be deeply mired in the blame game; our crucial long term weakness seems that we have the trappings of a modern democracy. But a broad leadership in the ruling party is more aligned to the spirit of leadership that has marked the history of much of the African continent in the past 50 years.

    Steven in general does a great job in rigorous analysis with great ability to spin the positive from the closing abyss. George Bernard Shaw was somewhat blunter – ‘the power of accurate observation is often called cynicism by those who have not got it’.

  • khosi


    For the first time on Thought Leader, I agree totally with you.

    We seem to forget that, with all thats been thrown at it – THE SYSTEM IS HOLDING. It may need some improving but its holding.

    In Italy the mafia controls a municipal function and now they have a mess(pun intended). My god, how did that happen! We as South Africans loose our heads because our leaders are being charged with corruption, without fear or favour. I agree with you that this, in itself, is progress.

    We need to be grateful to government for ensuring that our system of justice holds.

  • http://GeraldShaw Gerald Shaw

    Yes the system is holding. Let us keep it that way a wise and thoughful piece of writing, beautifully expressed.

  • T

    Beautiful article Prof Friedman, I agree 100% with you.

  • LG

    Prof, great one as usually, i don’t really read this blogging but since that one of “we know what we are not, but are we” i’m your biggest fan. keep it up.

  • Sam

    Hi Steven

    Very intersting views indeed and I agree with most of what you have said here. The problem I have with NPA is that the allegations against individuals are advertised long before the person is charged.
    Now, if we are to ask ourselves why people advertise we will come to the conclusion that it is tempt people and to make them remember your existence (I am not a marketing student by a long shot). The difference is that the NPA is not dealing in mindless ,emotionless products but in people’s lives. The NPA cannot continue to justify its existence by advertising allegations against people, these people have wives, children and relatives. The public can know about such things ones a person is charged and is on trail.

  • Steven Friedman

    A quick reply to Tman. I too believe in forgiving, but I don’t think it should extend to allowing people who have abused public trust to again occupy public office. This is not only my view – the Constitution does not allow anyone who has been sentenced to more than a year in jail to become a member of Parliament: the principle is the same – convicted offenders are free to get on with their lives, but not to hold positions of public trust.
    On your second question, yes, the NPA and the Scorpions are not the same and yes, in theory, we can have an effective NPA without the Scorpions. But in practice we are likely to have better law enforcement if we keep this unit outside the SAPS. Also, I think many people will conclude that, if the Scorpions go, it will be because politicians and officials don’t want zealous investigators looking into their affairs.
    Finally, I am not sure there was no criticism when Blair stopped the investigation you mention. But there probably was not enough criticism. If the British do not hold their leaders to account as they should, that is no reason for us to do the same.

  • Terry

    “… curry favour by means fair and foul” … mmm … Chicken curry!

  • Louis Thobela

    Dear Prof.
    You have placed a number of interesting thoughts on the blog. My first interest in interacting with your analysis is that one can engage in a civil debate with respect and dignity. Second, you will apprecaite that debate in South Africa on a variety of issues is shallow. This lack of depth is influenced by fear of insults and dominance of one view that may have the space and neccessary resourses to be communicated across. I am not an influential man by any standard but I can say with certainty that the scorpions are not beneficial to me nor to my community. A number of serious cases of fraud and drug trafficking which one could view as organised crime have been reported to the scorpions but nothing happened. All that we see is constant reference to corruption against leaders like JZ and others. The scorpions are an elite unit for the elite and protected by the elite. In 2002 there was a car hijack crisis in Pretoria East and the scorpions were nowhere with their specialised capacity. The SAPS whom we unfortunately disrespect responded swiftly and to this day are the only ones that we see tackling organised crime on the ground. I support any crime fighting structure that delivers a blow to crime. The scorpions’ only defence comes from the elite. Prof, if indeed the majority are opposed to the dissolution of this unit let us test it through a referendum. I bet I would thump you on this one. I remain captivated by your thoughts