Let us not judge

2007-12-19 00:00

In the past few weeks I have had a number of near acrimonious arguments with friends about the possible election of Jacob Zuma as president of the African National Congress, for I am one for whom his election will not be a catastrophe. In fact, I believe he is the politician most well-equipped to lead the country now. He has great popular appeal. He has charisma. He is humble. Although he is not highly educated, he is an intelligent man. He has experience in government. He has achieved international acclaim for his work as a mediator in Burundi. And may I mention the matter of Aids? Although he may have committed a personal sexual indiscretion, he acknowledges the urgency of the problem and has proposed policies far more realistic than those of the president.

Zuma is feared for two reasons. The first relates to his possible involvement in a corrupt relationship with Schabir Shaik and the arms deal. I have always wrestled with the logic of the fact that Shaik was found to be in a generally corrupt relationship with Zuma and yet the National Prosecuting Authority has stumbled, delayed and so far failed to bring a successful prosecution against Zuma — even on the same evidence. Be that as it may, he has not yet been charged (let alone been found guilty) and the presumption of innocence must apply in his favour. But even if he has erred, I believe his error must be put in perspective. If he did receive a bribe, should we not forgive him? At this point in our national history is the forgiveness of Zuma not as much in the national interest as was the forgiveness of the perpetrators of apartheid atrocities at the time of our transition to democracy? And is the sin he committed so grave as to render him incapable of redemption?

Is it more grave than that of the lawyer who claims a fee for work not actually done? Or more grave than that of the doctor who requires a patient to undergo a procedure not actually necessary? Or that of the engineer who fails to disclose an interest in a company which supplies materials for his engineering project? Or of the public servant who falsifies subsistence and travelling claims? Or that of the university professor who inflates the marks of a favoured student? Or that of the salesperson who attempts to conceal the fine print in a contract? Or that of a seller who fails to disclose a hidden defect to the buyer of a car? Or that of any of us who has been given more change by a cashier than we were entitled to receive and failed to disclose it? No, we are all guilty. All of us.

Let us not be pious and judgmental. If Zuma erred, let us forgive him. Let us realise that his errors are as deserving of forgiveness as are our own. If he erred he will have learnt from the error and will be wiser for the experience.

The second reason for fearing Zuma is his involvement in a sexual encounter with a young woman. At the outset, let us get the matter of rape out the way. He was acquitted of rape mainly as a result of the complainant having conceded under cross-examination that she consented to the sex. The criticism of him is mainly confined to the fact that he knew she was HIV-positive. Yes, it is irresponsible for anyone to have unprotected sex with an HIV-positive person. However, I believe that sex is a very intimate, personal matter and that none of us can claim the right to know about the sex lives of others — even politicians — unless the sexual activity infringes the rights of others. Indeed, the Bill of Rights in the Constitution guarantees that. But sexual desire is a powerful force. It sometimes drives people to do things they would not normally, or even would not like to do. But we must ask whether those who have yielded to sexual indiscretion are vile, foul and altogether without goodness or virtue. I believe not. Bill Clinton was a public figure whose sexual encounter with another person became the object of disgusting voyeuristic revelry. Yet he was (and continues to be) a good man who continues to make a massive contribution to the fight against global poverty.

Again, I ask who is so perfect as not to have committed a sexual indiscretion or entertained an improper sexual thought? Is there a person alive who is so perfect in his or her personal life as to be completely free of blame? And if there is, would such a unique person be capable of ruling a nation of stumblers? None of us are so perfect as to set us apart and make us the perfect lawyer, doctor, engineer, salesperson, citizen or president.

I believe Zuma, in spite of (indeed perhaps because of) his frailty — and especially because of his humanity — will be a good president.

• Patrick Stillwell is a Pietermaritzburg attorney.

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