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Will Zuma never learn?

During President Jacob Zuma’s struggle to escape criminal charges and gain the presidency many government officials, choosing this side or that in the ANC’s internecine struggles, got their hands dirty.

In a factional free-for-all political instruction and second-guessing overrode professional exigency.

The result was that key institutions of state were gravely compromised. What a relief then when there came a cease-fire, however shaky, and Zuma reached the Union Buildings. But no cease-fire or peace treaty can be enough.

There is a need to rebuild institutions, to re-establish their integrity. Doing so is of critical importance to restore the faith of citizens in the state. We must know that it is there to serve us impartially, according to the law and not according to the whims of whichever faction happens to control the levers of power.

Otherwise ordinary people will lose faith in the system, decreasing the state’s power to rule effectively. Surely any politician with a grain of suss will realise that this cannot be in his or her interest?

We were nearing the abyss of waning state legitimacy during Zuma’s struggle. Many in his camp charged, not always without reason, that the National Prosecuting Authority and its Scorpions unit had been manipulated by then-president Thabo Mbeki. They had lost faith, threatening to die for or even “kill for Zuma”.

We could add more institutions. There was the police, which had been drawn into a separate but related struggle with the Scorpions; the intelligence services, elements of which were key to Zuma gaining the upper hand; and parastatals, which were milked to boost one or other factional interest.

Against this background, Zuma’s incoming administration should have realised the importance of rebuilding institutions and restoring citizens’ faith in them because, by their own account, they were compromised and because the ANC’s own longer-term interests — not to mention those of the nation — are served by institutions with integrity and ruled by law.

But there is another reason why Zuma’s strategists should have grasped this crucial task — a pliable official or institution might seem attractive to whoever happens to be on top of the factional pile, but what happens when you are not? A compromised institution is a double-edged sword.

All of which renders incomprehensible Zuma’s continued push to install, at key points in key institutions, people who dirtied their hands in his cause or compatible causes during his struggle.

Zuma did so when he installed at the head of the NPA Menzi Simelane, whose fight with the Scorpions gave them a common enemy; when he installed Moe Shaik and Lizo Njenje, the former an incorrigible partisan and the other who had fallen out with Mbeki, to head the civilian intelligence agencies; and now again with the appointment of advocate Nomgcobo Jiba as Simelane’s deputy.

Jiba allegedly sullied her hands when she, then an NPA official, chose to side with the police against senior prosecutor Gerrie Nel, the personification to Scorpions detractors of all they said was wrong with the unit. Common enemy, present reward. Zuma, it seems, has not learned his lesson.

Freedom requires vigilance
Perhaps it’s because the season of goodwill is still with us. This week ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu significantly toned down his political ­rhetoric of last year when he warned that journalists could face jail time when the party’s media appeals tribunal finally becomes a reality.

In an interview with the Mail& Guardian he repeated an undertaking that deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe gave editors late last year that the party would allow space for the media to strengthen their own mechanisms of self-regulation and put on hold the ANC’s threatened investigation of a media tribunal.

After Motlanthe first made the commitment, none of the party’s leaders backed him publicly. Nothing in what Motlanthe or Mthembu assures us that they have totally abandoned this wild idea, which would severely dent South African’s democratic and human rights credentials. The signs are, however, positive. They point to a willingness to engage, which was sorely missing last year when militant bluster was the order of the day.

For the media and the rest of civil society, these encouraging signs should strengthen the resolve to protect the rights of free expression enshrined in our Constitution. Civil society has to stand firm and engage on the issue, whether through talks, petitions or marches. But the message should be that vigilance and scrutiny is required at all times to ensure that we remain an open and transparent society, which confronts, rather than hides, unpleasant truths.

This means that the ANC must come to terms with the huge domestic and international pressure it has been subject to. It means the demagogic voices who felt personally piqued by media revelations about their lifestyles and abuse of taxpayers’ money will have no room to hide.

It is unlikely that the rest of the ANC leadership and membership, who have been made radical on the issue, will let go easily.

Many in the ruling party cannot reconcile themselves with free media that will resist any attempt to bring them to heel. And it will be up to the leaders of the ruling party to stop playing the victim card and show some leadership.

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