Malusi Gigaba sex scandal: Should we care about politicians' private lives?

2018-10-30 06:00
Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba. Picture: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba. Picture: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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On Sunday morning South Africa woke up to the news that a video of a sexual nature featuring Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba was doing the rounds.

Gigaba himself broke the news on Twitter where he wrote that his phone was hacked in 2016 or 2017 and the video, which was meant for his wife, was stolen. It has apparently been used to blackmail him.

The video has since dominated headlines and chatter on social media, which brings to the fore several questions around public and private morality: Are politicians answerable to the public when they mess up in their private lives and can we trust a politician who can't be trusted to keep his sex life private?  

In essence, do the private lives of politicians matter? And do we want our political debate to be conducted at the level of People magazine?

Political sex scandals are nothing new and have been around since before 1918 when US president Franklin D Roosevelt was caught having an affair with his wife's secretary. The list of US politicians caught in compromising situations is endless, with the most infamous being president Bill Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky that ultimately led to his impeachment.

South Africa has also had its fair share of politicians having their dirty laundry aired in public. In 1998 former president FW de Klerk and his wife Marike divorced after he started an extramarital affair with a close friend of the couple, Elita Georgiades. The two got married after De Klerk's divorce and are still together.

In 2006, then KwaZulu-Natal MEC for arts, culture and tourism Narend Singh resigned after a DVD showing him and a married Durban socialite having sexual intercourse was widely distributed. Singh is currently a respected IFP member of Parliament.

In 2009, reports emerged that then president Kgalema Motlanthe was involved with two women besides his wife, one of whom was pregnant at the time. He has since divorced and got married to Gugu Mtshali in 2011. In the heated build-up to the ANC's elective conference at Nasrec in 2017, rumours of an alleged affair between then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and a younger woman surfaced. Ramaphosa admitted to the affair, and the news blew over.

As political analyst Ralph Mathekga said over the weekend: "In South Africa, we are used to these things and they don't really have an impact on politicians' careers."

So, to what extent does the public have the right to demand morality from government officials and public representatives? British prime minister Harold Macmillan famously said: "If you want personal morality, talk to a bishop, not a politician."

Dr Chris Jones, head of the Unit for Moral Leadership at Stellenbosch University's faculty of theology, says that while Gigaba did the honourable thing by apologising to his family and the public for the possible pain and humiliation the video might have caused, he showed poor judgement by recording and saving the video in the first place.

"What I can't understand is that people, especially high-profile people, seemingly do not learn not to save videos, especially of a sexual nature, that can be linked to their person on their phones and computers," he remarked. "Why would you record yourself doing something like that in any case? Is there perhaps a bit of self-obsession or vanity behind it? It is simply bad judgement and one hopes Gigaba applies better judgement with regards to his political and government decisions."

Jones rightly observes that the character of a public representative matters to the extent that it influences their decision-making and performance in office.

To suggest, therefore, that Motlanthe was more likely to lie on the job because he slept with another woman while being married, is unfair. In the same vein, does the fact that Nelson Mandela in his lifetime had three wives, one who accused him of abusing her, undermine the role he played in South Africa's negotiated peaceful settlement? And does Hendrik Verwoerd's fidelity to his wife, Betsie, tell us much?

But where a politician's private decisions are in contrast with his public stance on official and policy matters, then it becomes an issue. For example, if the minister of health has a drinking problem it affects her credibility as the representative responsible for public health. Or, if the president says he showered after having sex to avoid contracting HIV, it undermines the government's efforts to fight the spread of the disease.

As constitutional expert Professor Pierre de Vos wrote after the Motlanthe scandal: "…public morality of politicians requires that they are more or less honest, that they should not behave like rank hypocrites and that they should more or less practice what they preach. If they fail to do so, it will say something about their public morality and then their private lives should become fair game for the media".

Gigaba's situation is complicated by the fact that a court of law has found him to have lied under oath. He now claims that he does not know the identity of the blackmailers and did not initially concede to their demands. He also claims his phone was hacked and he never sent the video to anyone. Can we believe this from a man who has previously been found to be a liar?

Gigaba's dignity may have been violated and his privacy infringed, but his bigger problem is how he will win back the trust of the South African people.

Read more on:    malusi ­gigaba  |  sex scandal  |  politicians

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