There is a haunting image of a manacled Mac Maharaj being frog-marched to his mother’s funeral by apartheid policemen.
Maharaj had been arrested when the security forces bust Operation Vula, the underground Umkhonto weSizwe network that the African National Congress had mandated him to set up as a guarantee against constitutional negotiations going wrong. While his comrades, then increasingly becoming part of the establishment, were being wined and dined, Maharaj was eating prison food.
That image elicited much sympathy and anger from South Africans, who saw this humiliation as an act of bad faith by the National Party.
Despite his bitterness at what he perceived as betrayal by those who did not protest loudly enough against this treatment, he emerged intact from detention to offer his services to South Africa.
This week Maharaj again cut a tragic figure, but for a very different reason. There he was, on the witness stand at the Hefer commission, bumbling his way through what he must have known was nonsensical testimony. It was inevitable that under relentless cross-examination by the country’s top lawyers, he would wilt.
It was indeed sad to watch this once great man resort to “when-we” talk, recounting his struggle exploits and regaling his audiences with tales of his bravery. It is an obvious tragedy when those who were revered feel the need to remind the public of their credentials.
Warning sirens should sound loudly when those who dedicated their lives to freeing this country spend their twilight years peddling fables and being subjected to public humiliation — at their ownbehest.
Maharaj need not have been on the stand this week.
Sure enough, he is not the most likeable guy around (arrogant, pompous, self-important, pious are words that spring to mind), but his sterling role in South Africa’s liberation, from the time he signed away his life to the struggle in the 1950s, to the time when he ran Operation Vula, is undeniable.
Then something happened after April 27 1994. That virus that consumes good fighters after liberation began eating away at the ANC. Those with weak immune systems fell victim to it and jettisoned the principles on which they had based their lives.
If Maharaj’s admissions to the FirstRand inquiry and other evidence before the court of public opinion are anything to go by, he also caught the virus. It is his desire to fight proof of his infection that saw him play such a key role in the fable factory that eventually led to his humiliation in Bloemfontein this week.
Even as he was being justifiably crucified, Maharaj was unable to do what people of the greatness he has achieved should be able to do: admit he was wrong. He was unable to admit there was a lot wrong with his relationship with that strange Durban family, and that he was wrong to embark on a futile crusade to nail the institutions which were legitimately probing his affairs.
This fable factory is where age-old allegations of spying against National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka were assembled and constructed into a plausible tale and then turned into a national crisis. The fable factory is the reason the Hefer commission is taking up so much of our time and causing so much unnecessary distress.
As this newspaper’s street posters said last week in more expressive language, the commission is a waste of public money and an even greater waste of the time of senior public officials, whose work routines have been disrupted by what is no more than riveting reality television. Its primary success has been to drive up television viewership ratings. It was never going to uncover anything of value.
Nonetheless, we can salvage something from the Bloemfontein side-show. It can force us to ask the tough questions about how we can fight this virus which threatens to poison much of the good that this nation has achieved in the past decade.
How do we prevent other icons from letting themselves become television clowns? How do we prevent the embarrassment of a deputy president who thinks it is acceptable to walk around with a begging bowl asking all and sundry for loans? How do we prevent the derailing of promising public service careers of bright young people such as Andile Nkuhlu, who fall victim to influence-peddlers? How do we prevent movements such as the ANC Youth League from finding themselves virtually owned by a single business family?
This newspaper has said before that the current saga has put South Africa and all its institutions, including Maharaj’s accusers, on trial. The trouble is that the nation’s performance in the witness box has been as lamentable as that of Mac and Mo. And this is because we are not dealing with matters honestly and admitting where we might have gone wrong.
Maharaj can teach us how. Because it would be very unfair for this man to be remembered for his performance on television this week. He gave much more to this country. All he needs to do is admit that he blundered.