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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.