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Judge Cwele as minister, not husband

Eusebius McKaiser

The calls for South Africa's state security boss to resign are both mischievous and misplaced, writes Eusebius McKaiser.

State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele should not resign just because his wife has been convicted of drug-related criminal activity. The call for his resignation, from various opposition political parties as well as many ordinary citizens, is unjustified.

There seem to be two dubious versions of this demand. One version is based on the assumption that the minister must surely have known that his wife was engaging in illegal activity and is therefore complicit in her law-breaking adventures.

The second version, a little more faithful to the established facts, concedes that it is not legally proved that the minister was complicit in criminal activity but, given his job title, he should nevertheless resign because he could not possibly keep all of us safe if he did not manage to smell a criminal who is in bed with him. Both versions of this argument lack conviction.

The first argument is almost self-evidently weak. There is an absence of legally established facts of actual wrongdoing on the part of the minister. A resignation call on the basis of rumour instead of fact is unreasonable and politically mischievous.

The second argument is less implausible, but ultimately not good enough either. The nexus question is: should a minister of intelligence know everything about his or her spouse to qualify as minister of intelligence? The answer is no.

First, there is a difference between being the political or administrative head of state secrets and being a husband, even an estranged one. The first role requires you to be sceptical about whether or not you can trust (most) people and to err on the side of spying on someone who might be a threat to the security of fellow citizens.

The other role, that of husband, does not come with the same demands. There is a lower threshold of care with which you need to negotiate romantic relationships, even as minister of intelligence. Those calling for Cwele’s resignation imply that he should be spying on his wife every second of the day. That expectation confuses the role of state intelligence chief with the role of loving husband.

Second, even if the minister should spy on his wife (which is surely not the case), the standard we are applying to him is too high. A minister of intelligence cannot be expected to be an all-knowing God.

Yes, he should have greater knowledge than you and me about the world around us and aspire to have perfect knowledge about it, but he should not be dismissed for not actually having that perfect knowledge. If it turns out that his wife (who he has rightly not been spying on) is doing naughty stuff while he is at work, his failure to know about it is irrelevant to his real job description, which is to keep the state, overall, safe. He is not a law enforcement officer responsible for every single category of crime.

Third, and related, there is confusion about what his job entails. That confusion is neatly captured in the retort by some critics of my viewpoint, whose rejoinder goes something like this: “But he shared a bed with her! He lived with her! So if he didn’t know about criminality in the house, how can we trust him to keep us safe?” This retort is tempting. But it is also badly conceived.

If we accept that it is important to separate the role of intelligence head from that of husband then it is fair to say that the duties of the minister, as a husband or spouse, are the same ones we have to fulfil as husbands, spouses or partners. He has to be allowed to trust his spouse more easily than he would a suspected terrorist. He has to be allowed to be human, which means being allowed to make judgments of trust on the basis, in part, of romantic love, and not just to be a robotic machine looking for would-be criminals both in the street and in his attic.

This is not, as some will misconstrue, a suggestion that he should apply no due care in selecting his spouse. The point is simply that his ending up with a spouse (who he knew and committed to before this job) who turns out to violate the law is a mistake that is acceptable for any politician to make, including the minister of intelligence.

Let us rather ask whether he has done a good job in preventing attacks on our cities or preventing would-be spies from stealing state secrets and so forth. If he has failed in that department, then he must go. If his only sin is that his spouse is guilty of a crime, then he is at worst a broken husband and imprudent lover, not unlike many of us, rather than an incompetent intelligence head.

Eusebius McKaiser is an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics

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