Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Nene, Gigaba's departure puts public morality back into political leadership

2018-11-15 09:20
Former home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba answers questions during his appearance before the parliamentary hearing into state capture on March 12, 2018. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Esa Alexander)

Former home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba answers questions during his appearance before the parliamentary hearing into state capture on March 12, 2018. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Esa Alexander)

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It became clear under Jacob Zuma that political power wasn't real unless stripped of its moral component. The resignation of Malusi Gigaba and Nhlanhla Nene could signal an important departure from that era, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

The resignation of Malusi Gibaba shortly after the departure Nhlanhla Nene from Cabinet could signal an important shift in the intersection between political power and public morality. But only if such resignations became a norm.

Political power for those who hold public office is about the means or authority to take decisions on behalf of the whole public or sections of it. Public morality is about exercising such political power while simultaneously having regard for values of honesty, sound judgement, public trust, commitment to the oath of office and fidelity to the Constitution.

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Under Jacob Zuma's administration, there was tension between political power and public morality. Zuma's personality and leadership style acutely symbolised this. His rise to power defied the force of gravity of public morality. Once in power, institutions were transformed into his image. And all that followed across nearly all stake institutions and the ANC replicated what he represented: tension between political power and public morality. Raw political power trumped public morality.

So, where does Gigaba fit into this tension? It would have been unthinkable in the past that someone would resign simply because he was found to have lied under oath. This would have been a minor misdemeanor that could only serve as a credit for a politician to hold onto public office or rise further.

You ought to have done something wrong to be trusted, according to the unwritten oath of wrongdoers who controlled the distribution of political power in the state. To be too honest and to demonstrate fidelity to the Constitution of the Republic was to invite suspicion, ridicule or even ostracisation. So, everyone, including people the general public thought were honest people, like Nhlanhla Nene, had to fit in. To fit in, you had to sign to pledge loyalty to the course.

Unlike the oath of office ministers take in public when they are sworn in, the oath of dishonesty, though unwritten, had to be signed in deed. Officials had to visit the Gupta compound or attend illegal meetings with banks who refused to do business with Guptas or something of the sort to demonstrate your fitness to hold office. Who can forget how swimming pools became fire pools overnight?

If not immediately available to pledge support by doing something dishonest, potential appointees to senior positions needed to have some blemish from their personal histories that could be used against them in future.

A senior official, who one hopes will voluntarily appear before the state capture commission of inquiry, was once told by the Guptas she would never be promoted. Her sin was to refuse a Cabinet appointment that had strings attached to it.

So it was that many honest people in public institutions had to prove their ability to be dishonest in order to be trusted by the guy who ran our country. This explanation will hopefully find its way to the records of the state capture commission instead of the defensiveness we are still witnessing.

The extent to which state capture succeeded by tempering with people's sense of personal moral judgement is yet to be fully explored by the commission. Officials, especially those who succumbed to the pressures, haven't come out to say how they were hypnotised and fell for the scheme. Yet, this was in part how public morality was turned into immorality under Zuma.

It became crystal clear under Zuma that political power wasn't real unless stripped of its moral component. The resignation of Gigaba as home affairs minister and Nene as finance minister could signal an important departure from that era, but only if such resignations become part of the political norm and culture, not damp squibs.

This is not to suggest that the two resignations necessarily carry the same moral weight. Nene's resignation is more palatable that Gigaba's. Nene voluntarily approached President Cyril Ramaphosa with a request be resign. No finding by any institution had been made against him. His resignation was not accompanied by unnecessary explanations about putting the president under pressure or that the resignation didn't mean admission of guilt and all that kind of stuff.

Nene's resignation had the unreserved tone about it, although he still needs to make a personal confession why he met the Guptas. To simply be honest and say, "I wanted to make the president happy so that I could keep a position in Cabinet", would be more believable than the standard answer, "I met the Guptas like I would meet other business leaders."

Gigaba wants the public to believe he did nothing wrong despite a contrary finding by the courts. His resignation lacks redeeming features.

The common denominator in the resignations is that there was some appreciation – grudgingly in Gigaba's case and unreserved for Nene – that political power needs a dose of public morality.

The challenge is how to make such resignations a durable part of our political culture among all holders of political power including opposition parties. Some leaders of opposition parties claim the moral high ground when criticising the ANC, but they keep their own big and "smaller-nyana skeletons".

- Mkhabela is a political analyst with the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa.

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