The culture of impunity

We stand at a very dangerous place as a young democracy. Public discourse over the past few months has raised serious questions about our shared view of right and wrong as citizens of a constitutional democracy.

There is a growing tendency to use loaded metaphors to label those we disagree with – counter-revolutionaries, tea girls, coconuts, black snakes and so on.

Why is it becoming so difficult to debate the merits of our arguments in a country that protects free speech?

I would like to suggest the root cause of our intolerance for dissenting voices is our lack of understanding and, in some cases, unwillingness to accept the basic tenets of our constitutional democracy.

Let’s examine two recent cases – the Public Protector’s report on the police leases and the City Press exposé of Julius Malema’s business deals.

The Public Protector’s role is clearly spelt out in Chapter 9 of our Constitution. Chapter 9 institutions “are independent, and subject only to the Constitution and the law, and they must be impartial and must exercise their powers and perform their functions without fear or prejudice”.

The Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, has done her work fearlessly to enable taxpayers and citizens to understand how these leases were procured, and what rules and procedures were transgressed.

Suggestions that she is somehow undermining the government or is naive do not demonstrate an understanding of her functions.

The astonishing unannounced visit to her office during these investigations and rumours that she may herself be under scrutiny for impropriety do not bode well for building a culture of accountability.

The idea that she should have discussed her report with Parliament before making it public also misses the point about her role and responsibilities as an independent watchdog subject only to the Constitution and law.

She has done her duty and it is now up to the president to “do the right thing”.

We should be supporting the Public Protector and not undermining her watchdog role.

The attack on the editor of City Press for the exposé of Julius Malema’s business dealings is disturbing for a variety of reasons.

First, Miyeni’s statement displays a frightening ignorance of or disregard for corruption as a cancer in any society: “Let’s say Malema does have a family trust, that the trust is funded by black businesspeople ... people (who) made their fortune through government tenders.

What the hell is wrong with that?” What’s wrong with that is that poor people are short-changed. Every rand that is paid to middle men and women in public tenders reduces the resources that are meant for infrastructure, social services and other public goods.

Piet Rampedi and Adriaan Basson in a follow-up article in City Press demonstrate the scale and extent of impunity with which public resources are being diverted by questionable procurement practices in Limpopo.

To have a private company, On-Point, chosen in a non-transparent way to take charge of a programme management unit within the premier’s office is extraordinary.

Millions of rands of Limpopo Roads Agency funding have allegedly been diverted into this programme management unit by the MEC responsible.

The reported memorandums of understanding accompanying tender allocations by On-Point as manager of the programme management unit stipulate that 50% to 90% of profit is due to the private entity.

As a Limpopo citizen, these practices matter to me.

They matter because they lead to roads in rural areas not being built, let alone maintained, resulting in many women dying in childbirth and their infants dying from treatable diseases because they cannot get to hospital on time.

It matters because clinics and hospitals do not have drugs despite government health spending increasing from R105 billion in 2010/11 to R113 billion in 2011/12.

It matters because it is a disgrace that our country performs worse than poorer countries in maternal and child health because we squander our public resources in the name of redress to tenderpreneurs.

It matters because poor children do not have proper schools and other facilities.

It matters because poor black children continue to be failed by underprepared or absent teachers, most of whom are black, and the lack of schoolbooks.

It matters because poverty and inequality are driven by these kinds of practices, committed largely by black people.

The frightening reality is that Limpopo is not the only province plagued by procurement irregularities that amount to looting of public resources.

Mpumalanga has several alleged cases of corruption that remain uninvestigated.

KwaZulu-Natal has its own dramas, with pending cases of corruption in the health procurement processes.

The Eastern Cape is often in the media for such cases, including the alleged arson of a health supply services storage facility earlier this year.

We ought to be concerned about the apparent lack of distinction between right and wrong.

A culture of impunity is creeping into our society with frightening speed. Solidarity with fellow black people cannot be an excuse for condoning corrupt practices.

Black people are the majority in South Africa and should take ownership of this democracy, including responsibility for social justice for those poorer than us.

We need to support those who are compelled by their love for this country and their ethics as public actors to expose what is wrong, regardless of who is doing wrong.

We need to be confident enough to engage in public debates about the performance of our democracy without resorting to insults and name-calling.

Where is the ubuntu we talk so much about when we call fellow citizens snakes or cockroaches?

Our humanity is interconnected. When we undermine the humanity of others, we undermine our own humanity.

The blurring of the boundaries between persons in public life and the organisations they represent, as well as that between personal interests and shared common resources, is a danger to the health of our democracy.

Citizens need to be vigilant and not fear speaking out.

After all, fear is what kept South Africa under the yoke of apartheid for so long. Our future expects better from us.

» Ramphele is the founder of Letsema Circle

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July 2020

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