/ 9 May 2009

A building block to make Zuma’s legacy great

Under J Edgar Hoover the American FBI assembled secret files on activists. It charged civil rights campaigners with arson, sedition, lewd sexual behaviour and being in the pay of foreign powers. It dug up dirt — and where necessary manufactured evidence — to construct cases against them. It arrested activists, as one account puts it: ”on every possible charge”. Hoover, in response to protestations of unfairness, would probably have said : ”But we do have good cases here. These people did do these crimes.” He was all the while ignoring the growth of the Mafia across the country.

Jacob Zuma is no oppressed ghetto activist. But if political leaders with large constituencies are fair game, then the FBI surveillance of and rumour mongering against Martin Luther King was perfectly in order. ”Dossiers” detailing King’s ”adulterous affairs” and even rumours about rape, emanating from the FBI’s investigations, still circulate on the internet today. I wonder what would have happened if King had protested against these practices. Maybe the FBI, and its supporters in the mainstream American media who, at the time, believed that these were brave and incorruptible ”Elliot Ness” type crimefighters would have accused King of trying to rape the justice system? Hoover would have enjoyed the chorus of justice-manipulating top dogs blaming prosecuted underdogs for attacks on the judiciary, it is just the kind of song he might have sung.

Besides being oppressive and wrong, the targeting of individuals, instead of targeting crime itself, fails to achieve a credible crime-fighting result. This is illustrated by the Scorpions’ ”investigation” of the arms deal. From 1999 to 2007, they targeted only individuals who had fallen out of favour with then president Thabo Mbeki.

The ”corrupt” moneys in these cases amounted to half of one hundredth of a percent of bribes that are suspected to have been paid on the main contracts. Here the NPA participated in an Mbeki-directed whitewash. There was, briefly, an investigation into the man who appears to have been the arms bribers’ main target, then defence minister Joe Modise. Bulelani Ngcuka stopped this investigation in November 2001, after Modise died. Investigators on the trail of massive payoffs were told ”the man was dead so there is no point”.

The corruption case against Jacob Zuma similarly misdirected law-enforcement authorities. Zuma depended financially on a businessman who hoped to profit from the connection. But is there really any African political leader against whom such a case could not be made? The entire present leadership was penniless in the late 1980s. Thousands of politicians were helped by businessmen. Are we going to prosecute them all? The endemic linkages between the political and economic elite — normal in all developing countries and, in a more advanced form, still normal even in the West — can hardly be addressed by singling out a few (rival) politicians for prosecution.

We need to transform our dysfunctional justice system into machinery that can analyse and ask, in the case of the arms deal for example, if this R60-billion was government expenditure that needed investigation (the answer is clearly yes). It would ask what was bought, whether we needed that, and if not, why we bought it. It would seek the links between paid commissions and bad expenditure, find which individuals profited the most, and then prioritise prosecutions.

It’s probably too much to hope for, but if Zuma were prepared to preside over a true investigation of the arms deal it could be the first building block in a great and unusual legacy.

Evelyn Groenink is a freelance journalist and coordinator of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters