Jacob Zuma scandal: A nation on trial

In the dock were the country’s leading institutions. The deputy presidency - whose incumbent, Jacob Zuma, is under investigation for alleged corruption - was an accused. Joining him was the nation’s prosecuting authority, whose head, Bulelani Ngcuka, is accused of conducting a witch-hunt against Zuma and other African National Congress leaders.

Another accused was the Fourth Estate, which faced charges of conducting a trial by media.
Lining up alongside them was the ruling party, whose disciplinary committee handed out a menial sentence to a convicted fraudster (that character who wears yellow jackets), raising questions about the harshness with which it is prepared to deal with corrupt acts.The main trialist was the South African conscience, whose approach and attitude towards corruption and impropriety and the values of good governance were under scrutiny.

This week’s battles, fought in public and in the corridors of power, were the culmination of a strange few weeks in which the hunter became the hunted. Ngcuka’s prosecution of high-profile African National Congress leaders has now earned him the wrath of senior ruling party figures and made him the subject of a sinister whispering campaign. It has been a period during which the media, despite its sterling role in helping the government curb corruption and keeping tabs on its performance, has come under attack and even been accused of being “fishers of corrupt men”. This is clearly a time for us, as a nation, to examine our collective conscience and ask ourselves what exactly our attitude to malfeasance is. Are we on the side of strengthening the hand of those who promote good governance, or do we sanction the undermining of the institutions that have made us the evolving model of democracy we are admired for being?

The events casting a cloud over our nation show that it is time the ANC followed the advice of its secretary general, Kgalema Motlanthe, on matters of conscience. Interviewed by the Mail and Guardian recently on the future of Tony Yengeni, Motlanthe stressed the importance of the individual’s relationship with his or her own conscience. “We give space to individual leaders to follow their own conscience … the ANC only moves in when your own conscience fails to guide you properly,” Motlanthe said, explaining the party’s approach to enforcing accountability and responsibility among its members.This is the time South Africa needs that guidance. For manifestly, our collective conscience is not guiding us to make the right calls.

The turning of the tables on investigators and the media, coupled with the blind comradely solidarity that party members often have with their leaders, is a worrying trend. What South Africa needs from the ANC at this juncture is the sense of moral leadership that only that organisation can provide, given its ubiquitous presence in our society. The kind of leadership that says Yengeni, with his contempt for public institutions, is not the face the ANC wants to project to the South African public and the world. And that says greed and self-aggrandisement should not be the bricks with which the ANC builds our society.

Most pertinently, the leadership required is one that says the ANC stands by the principles of public morality and good governance, and unequivocally backs the institutions established to deepen this culture. But before this happens, the ANC needs to put its own conscience on trial. For the signs sent out this week were not those of a party leading a country through a tortuous transition.

The public face of South African corruption, Tony Yengeni, received a slap on the wrist. He will no doubt continue prancing about in his funny clothes, guiding other ANC members on how to be good cadres. Then we had party activists closing ranks behind Zuma and perpetuating the whispering campaign against Ngcuka. The last straw was the emergence from hibernation of the Shaik brothers, whose names have popped up in almost every allegation of impropriety against ANC leaders. The brothers, Chippy and Schabir, arrogantly dared the state to act against them, with the latter describing the charges against him as “Mickey Mouse”.

The week’s events should sound alarm bells for a party with great revolutionary credentials and a commitment to clean governance. Somewhere, something is going very wrong in the culture of the party, and this is infecting the society it leads. The ANC and the government’s public commitment to fighting corruption is clear. Since 1994, many agencies have been set up to fight this scourge. These agencies, from the Scorpions to anti-corruption units within government departments and provinces, have gone a long way towards letting those in public employ know it is wrong to steal from the people.

Yet every week we hear of more people taking chances and breaching very clear guidelines. We also hear, with increasing frequency, of ordinary members of the public becoming inured to corruption and accepting it as the way governments work. Few events in recent years have had as debilitating an effect on the national psyche as the Zuma saga, and the manner with which the nation’s second-most powerful figure has conducted himself in recent months.

Here was a man who had displayed all the presidential qualities. He had time for ordinary folk. He had an ebullient and empathetic personality that made him likeable. He said the right things about Aids and gave us hope that all was not lost. On the continent, he earned great respect for his mediation efforts. Even the stories about his legendary inefficiency disappeared from the political and media grapevine.

Allegations of corruption against him and his unseemly fight with an organisation he himself set up, have been received with a mixture of anger, disappointment and disbelief. “So who are the good guys?” is the question on the lips of many who do not want this revolution to be mortgaged to foreign interest groups and shady individuals. The point is that the vast majority of those who run South Africa are the “good guys” - including the overwhelming mass of ANC activists, government functionaries and political heavyweights.

Zuma, who is innocent until his accusers prove him guilty, may well be one of them. If only he would conduct himself like one in relation to the pending investigation of his affairs. Yet the message being sent out is that it is not always correct for South Africans to show our rejection of the culture of kleptocracy so prevalent on our continent - or even crony democracy like that of the north Atlantic monolith that bullies the world.

We have built something unique on the southern tip of the African continent. Out of the ruins of a despotic, corrupt state we have, in less than a decade, constructed a nation with institutions and values that took other peoples decades and centuries to mould.  The trick is to make these institutions and values work, and not let them buckle under any pressure. We will know the resilience of our democratic infrastructure only when we face challenges like the current one.

This newspaper will enthusiastically aid the deepening of this democracy. We are confident that we, like the rest of the media community we are proud to be part of, will not be found wanting when that thorough judge called history hands down her verdict. We also hope that other institutions will acquit themselves honourably, because this project called the South African transition is not about a few powerful individuals and their wealthy friends. It is about a nation of 45-million people who want to be a shining light in their continent and the world. The South African conscience must emerge as the victor in this ugliest of battles.

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