Fear and loathing and Jackie Selebi

If you stumbled into South Africa recently you’d be a little disconcerted by our reaction to a certain former police commissioner’s arrest.

Former top cop Jackie Selebi’s appeal against his 15-year sentence for corruption was rejected on Friday, prompting the 61-year-old to collapse while watching the news on TV. He was rushed to hospital and it didn’t take too long for the comparisons with Schabir Shaik to start.
But Selebi wasn’t as lucky as the politically-connected fraudster who recently celebrated his 1000th day out of jail on a “terminal illness” card. He was taken from his sick bed—where his claims of illness, at least, seemed more legitimate—and shipped off to jail.

“Where’s the humanity?” You may wonder, as all and sundry seem to gloat at the weak and disorientated Selebi’s shock at his incarceration.

But you have to understand: South Africans are operating in an atmosphere of immense insecurity. We are so uncertain of the checks and balances on power, and on the seeming untouchable status of the political elites in our society, that we react with umbrage and sarcasm at the slightest hint of things going that way. Again.

It’s a sort of nausea that accompanies the news in South Africa—a sense of being seasick, if you will.

It’s difficult not to believe we’re lurching from one democratic crisis to the next as a country. One minute it’s talk of mine nationalisation. The next, it’s a certain youth leader whose name I should probably mention at some point in order to up the SEO ratings of this article. And when that’s over everyone around you seems to be panicking about attacks on media freedom.

We’re afflicted with a sort of consistent level of panic. But here’s the thing about panic: a system is only meant to feel it at certain moments of extreme tension, when action is demanded.

Think about the human body. Proponents of the adrenal gland fatigue diagnosis say the disorder is caused by chronic stress. The theory behind adrenal fatigue is that your adrenal glands are unable to keep pace with the demands of a state of perpetual fight-or-flight. It’s okay for your body to shut down non-core functions in these moment. But prolong that over a lengthy period of time and you start losing your hair, experiencing ulcers and a host of other stress-related side effects.

Which is a bit like the current public sphere. A series of stressful events in our democracy has left us in a perpetual state of anxiety.

In South Africa we treat each news event as if it’s equally momentous, and equally pivotal to the health of our democracy.

And of course it is, in many ways. But not everything is a “Polokwane moment” though it certainly seems we live in the shadow of that ANC elective conference when for the first time in our young democracy our country seemed at war with each other, thanks to factional battles between incumbent Thabo Mbeki and his eventual successor Jacob Zuma.

In our post-Polokwane stress disorder we judge everything with the same gravity, even if it does not necessarily warrant that level of concern. The ruling ANC’s worrying noises around the independence of the judiciary and the media have done nothing to help that sense of consistent panic. If you’re fed a series of electric shocks, it’s difficult not to always respond with kneejerk reactions.

So we have become a nation of reactionaries—with all the attendant short-sightedness.

With Selebi there was jubilation when he was sentenced—and bitter disappointment when he didn’t show up for jail time and we thought he’d get out on the Shaik card. Cue the sounds of bags being packed for Australia.

But in the end the system did work. Checks and balances kicked in, albeit in a weird way, and the highest ranking government official in our democracy to be sentenced to such a hefty sentence is going to jail. Sure we may cynically say it’s because Selebi is an Mbeki man and there isn’t enough political will to save him. But Mbeki did try to rescue Selebi in his time as president by applying pressure on the head of the National Prosecuting Authority at the time, Vusi Pikoli. If none of our systems worked, Pikoli—who was widely thought to be a political deployee at the time—would not have refused to buckle to political pressure, continuing investigating Selebi until he was fired. The media also acted as a robust check, with this newspaper bringing to light serious allegations against Selebi that could not be ignored. And finally, the courts did their job and sent a corrupt official to jail.

It’s not straight forward. In many ways the internal factions of the ANC act as an opposition party and the stiff competition sometimes makes for a good outcome in a twisted way—think about the disciplining of Julius Malema (bingo!).

Which doesn’t mean that we can suddenly wax lyrical about the health of our democracy. But it does mean that things are not as simple as good or bad, panic or rejoice. There is a complexity to our political life, just as there is a complexity to life in general. And we need to manage our sense of panic about the public space. Because not everything is worth losing your hair about.

  • Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G online. You can read her column every week here, and follow her on Twitter here.
Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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