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Time to reclaim our values?

Politicians and policy makers too often swing on a pendulum between unbridled ego and blinkered groupthink. Self-preservation at all cost, parading as “national interest”, is the key to understanding this dynamic. This was patently evident in the wake of the uproar over the decision last week to ban a Nobel Peace Laureate (the Dalai Lama) from visiting South Africa at the invitation of two of his peers: Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

A high-level UN anti-corruption meeting in Indonesia last year attended by more than a thousand government officials and politicians from across the globe was another such occasion. On the first day of the meeting it was announced that former Indonesian president Mohammed Suharto, one of South-East Asia’s greatest kleptocrats had passed away. This was the moment that the farce unfolded. Flags were lowered to half-mast and the majority of foreign government delegations expressed their condolences to the Indonesian people. An unspoken protocol required them to block out the dirty little secret that the Suharto regime had killed hundreds of thousands of suspected leftists in the 1960s while he plundered tens of billions of dollars. Groupthink had gagged the truth.

In the world of diplomacy much more emphasis is placed on form than substance. Why then should South Africans expect their government to defy one of the world’s superpowers, China, by allowing a “rebel” leader like the Dalai Lama entry into the country? The answer is of course the Cuban and Libyan leaders Fidel Castro and Moammar Gadaffi, both of whom have undertaken state visits to South Africa in the 1990s at the obvious displeasure of Washington DC, the other great empire. Surely the issue of the little man in the orange robes is more complex than the official explanation of the impact this could have on trade. It was clearly also more than the normal diplomatic silliness exhibited at the UN meeting in Indonesia. The importance of the issue became evident when a senior minister and a constitutional court judge chose to join Desmond Tutu and other free South Africans in expressing their outrage at the decision that says less about the Lama than about how South Africa values human rights. There is much to suggest that many other leaders within government and the ruling party have expressed a similar quiet displeasure. Witness the manner in which the presidential spokesperson flip-flopped throughout the week. He appeared to be working off multiple scripts.

Part of the answer may well be explained by events that unfolded a week earlier at the launch of the South Africa branch of the China-Africa Development Fund holding promise of further Chinese investment. While the country was officially represented by the ministry of trade and industry, media reports suggest that the unofficial South African star at the event was Mathews Phosa. Is it not peculiar that Phosa, the ANC treasurer-general who holds no public office, is accorded VIP status on the podium with a South African deputy-minister and the chairman of the Chinese Development Fund? Perhaps. Phosa is reported to have remarked, “After the election we will see an increase in co-operation between China and SA. The seeds have been sown”. The question that must be asked is what is the exact form of those seeds and could it have included funding to the ANC? Could this explain why leaders of the trade union movement have remained quiet on an issue involving a country whose unfair labour practices present possibly the greatest competition to domestic manufacturing jobs?

The truth is that we are unlikely to find out very soon because the ANC like almost all political parties keep a tight lid on internal finances and the donors who fund their election campaign. It’s one of the issues on which ANC president Jacob Zuma, Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille and almost every other political leader have agreed to deny voters the truth. The Congress of the People have a policy calling for transparency of the private party funding of political parties, however the bulk of its leadership sat in Luthuli House while every effort was made to ensure that party members had almost no knowledge of dodgy party financiers. This was save for information gleaned from media reports which suggest that dubious business and political leaders such as Brett Kebble and Suharto gave cash to the ruling party. This was a system perfected by former ANC president Thabo Mbeki and his close ally, treasurer-general Mendi Msimang (husband of former health minister Manto-Tshabala Msimang who continues to benefit from political support despite her poor record of service delivery). It allowed the ANC to go from a position of broke in 2004 to possibly the richest party on the continent at the time of the Polokwane conference in 2007 — reported to be worth R1,7-billion. This was possibly largely thanks to the ANC front company Chancellor House, which benefited from state tenders. It is speculated that the arms deal provided another possible source of funding.

The problem according to some ANC insiders was Mendi Msimang who alone had full knowledge of the extent of party funds. In response Phosa, upon taking office in the ANC treasury, promised a stop to the party being awarded massive state tenders. However, since then little has been said or written about the ANC’s finances. One can only speculate if the party lost some money in the global financial crisis, like most investors, and could now be desperate for funding. However, once again a tight-knit clique within Luthuli House guards this information. They have access to that magical combination of funds and the levers of political power within the state. This can make so many things possible as the Democratic Alliance may soon find out if elected into office in the Western Cape.

The manner in which party funding has been subverted to suit narrow interest plays itself out repeatedly in public life. It is reflective of the manner in which self-interest has become the mantra of the powerful with little respect for the values embodied in the constitution. Witness the painful saga over the past week involving Zuma’s attempts to avoid an open trial at all costs, the allegations of abuse of power by leaders within the National Prosecuting Authority, the alleged illegal taping of conversations between leaders in government. The real possibility that the arms companies, which carry so much responsibility for this mess will go unchallenged in court only to continue spreading havoc in other fragile democracies. It’s been a depressing week for the rule of law.

However, it is also a wake-up call for citizens to demand open and accountable governance, where deals are not concluded behind closed doors at the whim of the powerful and the protected. These should be the beginning and not the end of public calls for transparency in party funding and a full independent investigation of the arms deal. These calls must be made well beyond the April elections.

When Finance Minister Trevor Manuel chose to attack the Dalai Lama last week comparing him to Bambi, he seems to have forgotten the years before his regular trips to Davos and Washington, when he was an activist in a T-Shirt smuggling information to the Nigerian-led eminent persons group in defiance of the apartheid state. International solidarity is what helped bring about a free country. Perhaps the Dalai Lama was speaking to him and all South Africans who believe in a just society governed by constitutional values where dignity is realised, when he once said, “Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values”.