Ferial Haffajee
Ferial Haffajee

History will not absolve us

Post-Polokwane, our country has lost its standing. I realised this as ANC president Jacob Zuma fell backwards on his arse during his fourth wedding celebrations. He laughed good-naturedly, as he does, as his loincloth rose to reveal a set of legs toned by his dance routines.

This view is reinforced by the corruption charges against national police commissioner Jackie Selebi. When the man who wants to be president and the country’s top cop both face serious charges of accepting bribes, racketeering and selling their souls to crooked businessmen, we can reach no other conclusion.

Zuma’s wedding took place during the same week that the Scorpions charged him with fraud, racketeering and corruption. At Polokwane, international delegations were flummoxed by his accession to the presidency. “How can it be?” We pundits mumbo-jumboed about the magnificent wave of “democracy” that carried him to victory. Sure, there is an element of truth to this — but also a strong dose of self-inflicted naiveté.

We lower our standing still further when we repeat the mantra that Zuma is innocent until proven guilty.

Of course he is. But that is a legal argument.

This is a political country in the best sense of the word — a nation that dared to fight beyond the lowly order to which history had assigned us. If nothing else, the struggle for democracy, which truly did involve and change millions of people at one level or another, earned us the right to expect higher standards of those who would lead this nation-in-becoming.

To be blunt, Zuma is a lesser leader for what we know of the various tests of political leadership, morality and good judgement that he has failed. The test for the presidency must be higher than the legal test of innocence or guilt.

We have lost our standing because our fine, grassroots-trained leadership has all but disappeared.

Leave aside the snobbish whingeing of middle-class dinner parties and corporate boardrooms, where fingers rush to pinch noses on mention of Zuma.

I speak instead of a fundamental betrayal of the very simple, profound goals the ANC set itself when it led the Constitution-making process: the realisation of a set of progressive advances under the law.

The rand may be holding its own for now, but South Africa has a new national currency: we are trading in expediency and populism.

More than 30% of the members of the new national executive of the ruling party have malfeasant marks over their heads. These are men and women who, in various ways they may question, failed the test of democracy by giving in to the temptations of power and patronage. Some have accepted loans from friends in business; other have cashed in travel vouchers; at least one has taken a “discount” on a fancy sedan; some have simply lied to Parliament. And they have now been elevated to the top ranks of the party that is likely to be in power for at least another two decades.

Their elevation is also our loss of standing and no amount of obfuscation and or conspiracy-mongering can change that.

What nonsense is this trend (started by President Thabo Mbeki) to blame most every brush with the law on unnamed apartheid-era third forces? And why don’t we speak out loudly against such patently false claims? Are we intimidated by the bombast and vitriol of the ANC’s so-called Youth League, and the increasingly politically incoherent Congress of South African Trade Unions?

Now, leading political analysts such as Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya and Business Day political editor Karima Brown float the idea of an arms-deal amnesty. This suggestion is catching on and may well be the outcome of the ruling party’s own investigation into the first major corruption scandal of democracy.

Democrats cannot allow the expedience of an amnesty. It is not a cure-all or a cop-out, but a legal weapon to be used judiciously in support of transition (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) or transparency (the small-business tax amnesty).

The prosecutions of Zuma and Selebi must go ahead. If any more dirt comes out of the arms deal, then those involved must be prosecuted; otherwise we will destroy the rule of law.

History will not absolve the various attacks on the rule of law that underlie our fall from grace. The constant carping against the charges; the questioning about whether the case against Zuma should proceed at all — about whether any judge will have sufficient independence; the Youth League’s conflation of prosecution with judgement — all these make the separation of powers increasingly fragile.

In fact, it is this atmosphere that provided the oxygen for Selebi’s attempt to suspend the law on an argument that was, mercifully, thrown out of court.

This took place just days after the top cop’s henchmen arrested Scorpions investigator Gerrie Nel on trumped-up charges. That Selebi’s bid was unsuccessful is a good thing, but the ANC’s immediate response was to raise a racial conspiracy: why had Nel’s case been thrown out while Selebi faced charges?

In the same dismal spirit, the ruling party launched an unprecedented attack on Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke for having the audacity to assert his independence and all our rights in a birthday speech.

Such carping and second-guessing can only corrode the rule of law, as former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson and the human rights advocate George Bizos had to warn publicly last week.

Our nation’s standing is based on the quality of our leadership and Constitution — nothing more and nothing less. While MS Prabhakara, former South Africa correspondent for the Hindu, has written persuasively of the follies of South African exceptionalism, I was always a believer in our special ability to fashion a new state with a standing that would outlast the first blushes of democracy.

Instead, as our democracy turns 14 years old, the new leadership (if you can call it that), seems intent on sacrificing democratic longevity on the altar of populism and their hunger for power. This is not early nostalgia for the Mbeki era, which indeed set us on this path of falling men and fallen standing.

This piece was originally published in the Mail & Guardian, but due to a massive reader response it is reprinted here on Thought Leader for further debate