Mercy for a mampara

2009-02-17 00:00

Carl Niehaus is a sad figure, staring watery-eyed at us these days from the newspapers and sounding broken and repentant on the airwaves. I must say that I feel sorry for him. It would be so easy to lampoon him - and ridicule him - and smugly point to yet another example of ANC crookedness and waywardness and corruption.

What we are all witness to, at the moment, is the unmasking of a flawed personality. For him it must be painful to be forced to go public about his defects, his lies, his cover-ups, his fraud and his vomit-inducing double-talk. It must be hard to be stripped naked and paraded publicly. It must be hard to be laughed at, dismissed and now completely disregarded.

One has to ask oneself, what type of person, given the background that he created for himself, would accept a public pedestal such as the one he recently occupied, knowing that the possibility of the truth seeping out was strong. But more, what type of decision was this, on the part of the ANC, to appoint him to that position in the first place?

Last night I went to see the movie Doubt, with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman taking the lead roles of an easy-going priest and a severe nun. The movie is essentially about personalities and their different perspectives on the world. The issue is child abuse - indicated rather than proved - on the part of the priest. On the part of the nun, the issue is traditional values and a relentless pursuit of righteousness.

The extraordinary thing about the movie is that one vacillates continuously between the two protagonists. At one time one finds oneself siding with the one. At another time one finds oneself siding with the other. In the end it becomes clear that both are damaged personalities. Both are flawed. It is almost impossible to decide which of them is less guilty.

Now with Niehaus the position on the one hand is fairly clear. Despite his history of resistance against apartheid and the un-doubted suffering because of it, the man is a sleazeball, by his own admission. We are not left with any doubt about this. His admitted actions have made this as clear as daylight.

And the ANC is squirming. It is a political catastrophe. Not only has the sleaze been uncovered and admitted, but that a man such as Niehaus was appointed by it to perch on the summit of Mount Integrity in the first place. When it became apparent that, never mind the summit, he barely reached the foothills, it became obvious that what the ANC is facing is a media and public relations disaster of epic proportions.

Which is why I was so interested in a statement made by Gwede Mantashe soon after the revelations hit the press. He said, in words to this effect, that in the ANC there are no dustbins for people to be thrown in. He said that while Niehaus would be offered counselling and rehabilitation, he would not be cast onto the streets. He would be deployed elsewhere within the organisation.

This is a strange thing for a political party spokesperson to say and certainly nothing that I am used to. I am used to political parties having little or no compunction in discarding the people who are not of any political use to them, or who have caused, or even might cause, damage to them.

The question is, then, what could possibly be the motive for such generosity? Well, one answer is arrogance. The ANC, so goes the argument, is so bloated with power that it doesnÕt care one jot or tittle what people think of it. It will appoint whom it wants and where it wants to appoint them. And bugger the consequences.

Another view is that it is a deeply humane organisation, which cares for its people and is not going to see them going down the drain. It will support them, sustain them and nurture them, no matter what their circumstances. Many would see this as precisely the way in which the ANC as an organisation has dealt with Jacob Zuma, Tony Yengeni and the Travelgate crooks in its midst. (Of course, it has not dealt in the same way with the Alan Boesaks of the world, who were dumped fairly comprehensively.)

But, in the end, this is all sophistry because there is really only one issue which remains pertinent. The ANC can of course retain Niehaus if it thinks that is the right thing to do. But the issue at hand is this. What is the position that Niehaus will be appointed to now that he has been revealed to be a sleazeball and a mampara? That, I would think, all of us, ANC members and others, are eagerly waiting to see.

* Michael Worsnip is director: 2010 World Cup Unit, Western Cape Province, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. He writes in his personal capacity.

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