The private lives of politicians: When should we care?

Ntsiki Mpulo

Social media was all aflutter last weekend over the "assets" of Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba. The explicit video was allegedly leaked as part of a blackmail ploy.

The media code of ethics dictates that the media should not report on the private affairs of the public without their consent. But people in the public eye often come under scrutiny and particularly politicians, who are supposed to uphold the rule of law. Their lives seem to be fair game.

Two of the most prominent cases that come to mind and that have been hotly debated in the media are those of Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the former minister of health in Thabo Mbeki's cabinet and former United States president Bill Clinton.

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In the Tshabalala-Msimang case, the Sunday Times published details obtained from her medical records in August 2007, alleging that she had smuggled alcohol into a hospital while she was being treated for a shoulder injury and that the liver transplant she had undergone earlier that year was as a result of cirrhosis, an alcohol related degeneration of the liver. 

Tshabalala-Msimang lodged an urgent application against the Sunday Times to have her medical records returned to her. The South Gauteng High Court ruled in her favour and ordered the newspaper to return the records and delete all copies from journalists' laptops and computers as well as pay the costs of the case. 

Arguments for publishing were that she was not fit for office, not only because she had smuggled alcohol into the hospital and had abused staff, but because her refusal to make anti-retroviral therapies available in the public health service was said to have resulted in the deaths of at least 400 000 people. The major debate at the time was whether revealing her records was in the public interest or whether it was just interesting to the public.

It has been a hotly contested discussion in many media ethics classes on campuses across the country. But our Constitution prevailed. The right to privacy is protected in terms of the common law and Section 14 of the Constitution of South Africa.

Dr Kgosi Letlape, then chairperson of the South African Medical Association (SAMA), said at a South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) hearing into the matter that hospital records may never be shared without the consent of the patient.

In Bill Clinton's case, the lies he told about his affair with Monica Lewinsky led to his impeachment hearing on 19 December 1998 by the House of Representatives on the grounds of perjury to a grand jury and obstruction of justice.

Unlike the other two cases which took place before the era of social media, Gigaba's antics were shared amongst thousands of South Africans before we could even debate the ethics of publishing such materials. The media did however report on the reaction to the leak.

News broadcaster eNCA placed Gigaba's statement at the top of its news bulletin on Sunday evening. Here again we must ask the question, is it in the public interest or merely interesting to some sectors of our society?

It's alleged that the video was meant for a woman, other than his wife. Therein lies the conundrum. Should he resign from his position as a result of the leaking of the video? It depends on whether we hold our politicians to a higher moral standard than ordinary citizens.

If the private tape was intended for his partner, why should we care what a couple does in the relative privacy of their own homes and on their devices? Unless the device was a government issued cell phone. Then it was an abuse of state resources. 

Sex and videotapes aside, the parliamentary committee on home affairs is conducting an investigation into the allegations around the naturalisation of members of the Gupta family. Earlier this year, Gigaba was found to have lied to the courts when he said he did not give permission to Nicky Oppenheimer's company, Fireblade to operate a facility at the domestic terminal at OR Tambo International Airport. He is also heavily implicated in state capture.

For the harm that he has caused to the South African economy and to the people of this country, he should be removed from office. We should focus our energies on investigating the allegations that surround him, and ensuring that he accounts for those, rather than zooming in on his private parts.

- Ntsiki Mpulo is head of communications at Section27, a public interest law centre.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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