A thicket of blunders

2009-04-01 00:00

Seldom in any modern democracy can a ruling party have stumbled through such a thicket of blunders in the run-up to an election as the African National Congress has these past few weeks and months.

This penchant for self-inflicted injury is not new. It began during the Thabo Mbeki era with the former president’s Aids denialism and his cosying up to tyrants which caused some baffled critics to label us a “rogue democracy”. But the tendency has reached a crescendo of late.

The recent cascade of follies began with the disclosure that leading figures in the ANC leadership were aware of Carl Niehaus’s pathological background of fraudulent and deceitful behaviour before making him the ruling party’s official spokesman, its public face and voice for the election campaign.

Then we had the scrapping of the effective Scorpions investigators and President Khalema Motlanthe’s dismissal of Vusi Pikoli as the national director of Public Prosecutions, despite the Ginwala Commission’s finding that he is “a fit and proper person” for the job. We all know the reason for these shameful acts, which was to clear the way for getting Jacob Zuma off the hook of his corruption charges.

Even as the final phase of that sordid process began, Zuma’s close buddy, Moe Shaik, committed yet another blunder by jumping the gun and announcing its outcome prematurely, so causing the ANC even greater damage by making the process so patently obvious.

Meantime, we had the release from prison on dodgy grounds of brother Shabir Shaik, Zuma’s collaborator, adding to the damaging suspicion of fiddling with the judicial system as the subsequent disclosure of medical reports showed there was no consensus among his doctors that the man really is at death’s door.

Now, as a gratuitous extra, comes the dumbfounding decision to prevent the Dalai Lama, perhaps the world’s most singular symbol of peace, coming here to mark World Peace Day at the invitation of his fellow Nobel Peace laureates and the 2010 Soccer World Cup organisers. Again we have had a spurious explanation. The whole country knows it was because of pressure from China and that we have sold out our precious image as a symbol of peace and reconciliation for political expediency.

Coupled with our reluctance to speak out on the human rights atrocities in Zimbabwe, Burma and Darfur, this is a betrayal of our image as a champion of human rights, which the ANC mobilised globally to bring about the liberation of our country and which Nelson Mandela vowed at his inauguration we would always uphold. Again principle has been betrayed in the interests of expediency.

To compound the felony, Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has argued that sport and politics shouldn’t be mixed. Does that mean the ANC’s long campaign for a sports boycott of apartheid South Africa and its slogan of “no normal sport in an abnormal society” had nothing to do with principle? Or does normality mean principles no longer matter?

To cap it all, we now await the final judgment in the corruption case against Zuma himself — taking place in a secret trial within the pressurised and compromised prosecuting establishment, with secret evidence, no sworn testimony or cross-examination and no reporters present to tell the public what is happening — only periodic selected leaks from unnamed sources involved in the secret process.

The outcome, of course, is a foregone conclusion. We have all known for a long time how it would end.

Except, of course, that it will not end. Scandals that are not fully disclosed never go away. They linger and suppurate, poisoning all around them, and periodically they break out afresh as new pieces of evidence come to light.

So, eight years after this legal saga began, and after countless court actions in what became known as Zuma’s “Stalingrad strategy” of delay, he will be freed without a public trial. He will remain forever “innocent until proved guilty” in circumstances where there was no trial in which that could be tested.

But he will not have the opportunity to clear his name either. In legal terms, this doesn’t count, for the assumption of innocence must stand. But in politics, perceptions are everything and as a recent opinion poll indicated, the majority of ANC members themselves don’t believe Zuma is innocent. Nor do nine out of 10 whites, coloureds and Indians.

The charge that in the 10 years between October 15, 1995, and June 1, 2005, Zuma received 783 payments from Shaik totalling precisely R4 072 499,85, and that there are 93 000 documents, including bank statements, testifying to every one of them, has not and will not be tested in court. It will remain part of that cloud of suspicion and scandal that Judge Chris Nicholson warned about if there were no full and open investigation into the arms scandal.

Nor is Zuma the only one who will be left tainted. Mbeki has been grievously tainted with the untested inference that he was behind improper interference with the prosecuting process. So have others close to him. So, too, have the intelligence services and investigating officers with the astonishing disclosure that they have been illegally tapping each other’s telephones, as well as that of a sitting president.

The whole thing is an atrocious mess, and it is in that condition that we approach our most important election since 1994. With the country facing the worst global economic crisis in nearly a century, with ballooning unemployment and key parastatals on the point of bankruptcy, there is no clear leadership about what to do. We are bogged down in a quagmire of blunders and scandals, led by a once-great liberation movement that has lost its way if not its soul as well.

How has the ANC allowed this to happen? Arrogance and greed are the answers. Arrogance born of a culture of entitlement that has afflicted so many liberation movements in the past, which is why so few still exist outside southern Africa. A culture which holds that because they fought the great liberation struggle they are entitled to rule indefinitely — “until Christ comes again” — and that all challengers are somehow illegitimate; a culture which therefore does not hold itself accountable to anyone outside its own structures; which holds, too, that because its members suffered during the long years of struggle they are entitled to special kickbacks and special protection should they land in trouble; that true comrades must rally around and defend the fallen and that the whistle-blower should take the rap for any scandals revealed rather than the delinquent comrades themselves.

When Lord Acton warned that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, what he meant was that with absolute power comes a loss of any sense of accountability to the people being governed.

That is what is happening to the ANC. But it is not too late. The ANC is a venerable organisation which still has much wisdom within it. But for the moment it has lost its way under a poor and tarnished leadership. It will win this election, but what it deserves — and what it needs if it is to fix itself — is a brisk kick up the backside from the electorate with a sharply reduced majority on April 22.

• Allister Sparks, a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail, is a veteran South African journalist and political commentator.

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