William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Marie biscuit corruption shows up the rot

This week a minor official, corrupted with a packet of Marie biscuits, highlighted starkly the present rot and inequities in the nation.

Corruption is endemic to all political systems. What differs is how it is dealt with.

Because governments in Western democracies are easily voted out, popular outrage over corruption is assuaged by periodically acting against the miscreants. The official or politician caught out — often by a vigilant media — is fired, accompanied by earnest declarations of surprise and outrage by their bosses, at such venality.

Even in autocracies like China, there is a cognisance that some accommodating mechanism is necessary. The ruling elite periodically makes an example of some of the corrupt by despatching them with a bullet to the nape of the neck after a perfunctory trial. This serves both to appease the mutinously muttering masses and to remind other offenders that malfeasance will not be tolerated.

Which brings us back to Mathato Mokhele, the data capturer who was fired from Home Affairs for accepting a packet of Marie biscuits from someone who wanted to secure a faster, preferential service. When this was discovered – no doubt the sleuths followed the tell-tale crumbs – Mokhele was charged with misconduct, found guilty, and summarily dismissed.

Although Mokhele had admitted her guilt, she then approached the bargaining council for arbitration. The ruling went against her. She then approached the labour court and this week Judge Connie Prinsloo also ruled against her, saying that it was the act of the bribe, rather than its monetary value, that was of paramount importance.

That’s an admirable sentiment, a reiteration that that there will be zero tolerance of corruption, just as the African National Congress keeps promising. It’s also just what a populace that is gatvol of corruption — whether it be making an imaginary traffic offence disappear or making a valuable tender appear — wants to hear.

Except that justice is indivisible. Unless it applies equally to the rich and the poor, to presidents and peons, to generals and privates, it is not justice.

Coincidentally also this week, the SA National Defence Force dropped all charges against two suspended SA Air Force officers. These related to their alleged role in 2013 in allowing an Airbus, chartered by President Jacob Zuma’s benefactors, the Gupta family, to decant a wedding party at a conveniently situated military air base, so too dispensing with normal immigration requirements, such as visas and passports for the happy revellers, who had travelled from India.

The two officers, Lieutenant Colonels Stephan van Zyl and Christine Anderson, have throughout steadfastly stuck to their explanation. They told a military tribunal that the then chief of state protocol in the Department of International Affairs, Bruce Koloane, had told them that Zuma (No 1, as he was supposedly referred to in the SMSes between the parties) had personally authorised the landing.

At his own disciplinary hearing, Koloane denied any involvement by Zuma, as indeed did Zuma in Parliament. Koloane was found guilty of severe dereliction of duty and “exerting undue influence” on state officials.

Koloane’s punishment was to be demoted from chief to lowly provincial liaison officer. His reward was shortly afterwards to be appointed as SA’s ambassador to the Netherlands. There’s a jarring disparity here, between the punishment of our hapless clerk and that of one of the government’s most senior officials.

That Zuma agreed to the appointment of Koloane as his representative at The Hague, inevitably excited suspicion of a quid pro quo between the two men, regarding Zuma’s involvement in Guptagate.

That the two officers who allegedly colluded with Koloane are now not to be prosecuted lends credence to that suspicion. Government at the highest level seems not to want the SMSes that the defendants stated they would table – the evidence that supposedly links Zuma to the affair – to be made public.

The withdrawal, if it is a ploy, may fail. Both officers, their careers clearly in tatters, intend to use the SMSes in civil suits against the state. As SA National Defence Union secretary-general Pikkie Greeff puts it, “We will prove that Koloane acted as an ‘agent’ for Zuma … [and] we can subpoena whoever we want, including President Zuma”.

This might be brinkmanship, union rhetoric to elicit the best possible settlement for its members. One hopes not. This is one case that needs to go to court, if only in the hope that it will prove to Mokhele that justice is, indeed, indivisible.

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