Restoring moral leadership

2018-11-28 06:00

THE resignation of Malusi Gigaba shortly after the departure of Nhlanhla Nene from cabinet could signal an important shift in the intersection between political power and public morality. But only if such resignations become the norm.

Political power is about having the authority to make decisions on behalf of the public sector. Public morality is about exercising such political power while having regard for the values of honesty, sound judgment, public trust, commitment to the oath of office and fidelity to the Constitution.

During Jacob Zuma’s administration, there was tension between political power and public morality. Zuma’s personality and leadership style symbolised this.

Once in power, institutions were transformed into his image, and all that followed across nearly all state institutions and the ANC replicated what he represented: a 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 misdemeanour. You had 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 was to invite suspicion, ridicule, or ostracism.

So, everyone, including people who the public thought were honest, like Nene, had to fit in. To fit in, you had to pledge loyalty to the cause. Unlike the oath of office ministers sign when they are sworn in, the oath of dishonesty 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 the Guptas, or something of that sort, to demonstrate fitness to hold office.

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

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

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 into the records of the state capture commission, instead of the defensiveness we are still witnessing.

The extent to which state capture succeeded by tempering people’s sense of moral judgment 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 clear under Zuma that political power wasn’t real unless stripped of its moral component.

The resignations of Gigaba and Nene could signal an important departure from that era, but only if such resignations become part of the political norm.

This is not to suggest that the two resignations necessarily carry the same moral weight. Nene’s resignation was more palatable than Gigaba’s.

Nene voluntarily approached President Cyril Ramaphosa with a request to resign. No finding by any institution was made against him.

Nene’s resignation had an unreserved tone about it, although he still needs to make a confession about why he met the Guptas. “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 the contrary finding by the courts. His resignation lacks redeeming features.

The common denominator in the resignations is that there is some appreciation — grudgingly in Gigaba’s case and unreservedly in Nene’s — that political power needs a dose of public morality.

The challenge is how to make this a durable part of our political culture, across all parties.

• Mpumelelo Mkhabela is a political analyst with the department of political sciences at the University of South Africa.

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