Robert Brand
Robert Brand

Niehaus provides the entertainment but what’s the real story?

I can’t help feeling sorry for Carl Niehaus. Not that anything can excuse the man’s behaviour, but you have to understand where he’s coming from. Niehaus spent his early adulthood in jail for his anti-apartheid convictions while the rest of us were getting started in life, accumulating wealth, property and building our careers. When he came out, he had nothing — no job, no money, no property, no experience of running a household or a bank account. He wanted the high life. That was his downfall. And so he got into debt and the whole, sad story unfolded.

The Mail & Guardian exposed it on Friday. The weekend newspapers followed with barely concealed delight. Schadenfreude is thick in the air. The Sunday Times led with Niehaus’ attempts to wriggle out of paying rent for his luxury Midrand pad (and appointed him “mamparra of the week”); Sunday World revealed that he had been arrested and spent a night in jail after failing to pay a R70 000 bill at Sun City.

Niehaus is a public figure; he lied and cheated; he deserves to be exposed and pilloried by the press. Yet … in their unseemly haste to kick Niehaus while he’s down, aren’t the media missing the real story here? In 2005, while he was chief executive of the Gauteng Economic Development Agency (Geda), Niehaus, according to the Mail & Guardian, forged the signatures of the Gauteng Finance MEC Paul Mashatile and three other MECs on a letter promising businessman Pierre Swart favourable treatment from the Gauteng government on property transactions in return for a personal loan. Niehaus soon had a crisis of conscience and confessed to Mashatile, who asked him to resign. This ended his seven-month career at Geda and he moved on to an executive position at Rhema Church.

Forging politicians’ signatures and offering a favour to obtain a personal loan is not only fraud, it is also corruption. Niehaus solicited a bribe and promised a quid pro quo. The fact that he didn’t deliver, and appears not to have received the money, makes no difference. It’s still corruption. And Mashatile, now Gauteng premier, became complicit in the corruption when he swept it under the carpet rather than taking action against the perpetrators. I use the plural advisedly, because it takes two to commit corruption. Niehaus asked for a bribe and somebody offered to pay it.

Niehaus was never more than a party functionary. His career has been destroyed, as it should be. But Mashatile is a powerful politician who has been spoken of as a possible successor to Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and Swart’s company is still in business, for all we know with the Gauteng government. So why aren’t the news media jumping all over those two rather than trying to outdo each other outdoing each other trying to humiliate Niehaus?

PS. Today’s edition of Business Day kind of gets the point about the Niehaus story: that it is about more than just dishonesty by one individual. But the newspaper is wrong when it says that Niehaus “had tried to defraud the Gauteng Development Agency in 2005″. He had, in fact, solicited a bribe from a third party in return for a promise of favourable treatment from the Gauteng government. That is corruption, which makes the Gauteng government’s handling of the issue even more dubious.

PPS. This posting also appeared on my personal blog, Low Opinions.