Don’t praise Nene for doing the right thing

I wonder whether you are as confused as I am about why former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene had to ask for our forgiveness last week.

There is something awkwardly religious about politicians seeking our forgiveness, a kind of plea to be absolved of their political sins.

The problem is that he cannot be forgiven without full disclosure of how we have been wronged. All we know is that Nene popped into the Saxonwold Shebeen for a cup of tea, or possibly six cups of tea. But why would you want the nation to forgive you for such a minor infraction?

You would have to be exceptionally naive to believe there’s nothing more to the sin than having tea with the wrong people at the wrong time in the wrong place.

As the Mail & Guardian reported last week, there are questions hanging over his head. Some relate to what happened when he was chairperson of the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), an important institution that is meant to look after public money, including by making prudent investment decisions.

There are also questions to be answered regarding what the meetings with the Guptas were about. In fact, we can now reasonably even speculate about how Nene became minister of finance in the first instance. Was he captured by the Guptas? Did he do their bidding? Did they ask his former political boss to appoint him? And what happened during his tenure as deputy finance minister when he also had oversight of the PIC?

READ MORE: Did Nene Jr deal with the Guptas?

He does not deserve forgiveness unless there is a full disclosure about these and related questions. It is disingenuous to pretend that the basis for Nene’s resignation is solely because he wishes to protect his office from the embarrassment of him having had tea with the Guptas.

The president would do well to ensure that the inquiry into the affairs of the PIC unfolds with haste, and that no stone is left unturned to determine whether there was wrongdoing during Nene’s time. We cannot play games with workers’ hard-earned pension pennies.

Besides these questions, there are several lessons that we, as voters and active citizens, need to learn.

First, it is important to adopt healthy scepticism — not to be confused with cynicism — when it comes to politicians. We should never assume a politician is wholly virtuous or incapable of wrongdoing. We are a country desperate for heroes and this sometimes leads us to lower our critical faculties when it comes to politicians whom we have decided are not capable of being corrupted.

We are so desperate that, even after the M&G story broke, and after Nene had by his own admission lied to an eNCA reporter about his relationship with the Guptas, some of us still want to praise the man for resigning and for not having signed the nuclear deal with the Russians.

Let’s examine some of these reactions.

There is nothing praiseworthy about doing your job. Admittedly, we have become so used to politicians looting or ignoring public interest and their constitutional duties that we want to give someone an award for simply doing what they should be doing. It was Nene’s duty not to sign off an agreement that was economically unjustified. That is what he was appointed to do. There is nothing extraordinary about a minister getting on with his job.

And, yes, I understand the context in which the temptation to praise him arises. In the context of rampant corruption and a captured state, this kind of pedestrian job performance seems praiseworthy. But we dare not lower our expectations of civil servants and their political principals. If the likes of Malusi Gigaba, Bathabile Dlamini, Faith Muthambi and Jacob Zuma are your baseline comparisons then, frankly, you will always be impressed by mediocrity or mere job performance. The leadership bar must be set higher than that.

The same goes for the act of resigning. Just because other ministers who have done demonstrably worse than Nene have not resigned doesn’t mean that his resignation must be regarded as a selfless act. It was the right thing to do, and could even have come sooner. Let’s not forget that he resigned after we learned that he lied to the public about his relationship with the Guptas.

What else did he lie about? What else did he not disclose to President Cyril Ramaphosa or to us citizens? Why did he choose silence for so long while you and I were coming to grips with the details of the shadow state and the subversion of our constitutional democracy?

It is mind-boggling that some people are tempted to give Nene a round of applause. That tells us a lot about our desperate need to hold on to our belief that some people are virtuous.

Second, this brings me to a lesson we need to learn about the dichotomy between good and bad. We think that we can neatly divide politicians into good and bad people. Sometimes bad people can do good things.

For example, it is very possible that Nene was already captured — we will have to wait for further investigations to run their course — by the time he refused to sign the Russian deal. The Russian deal may well not have been convenient for some people Nene was connected to. Who knows? My point is that imputing an honourable motive to Nene for refusing to sign the deal is, at this stage, a little hasty. He did the right thing. We are yet to learn whether he did the right thing for the right reasons. Time — and investigations — will tell.

Do not forget that it is not only the Russians but also the Chinese who are interested in getting their proboscises into the South African state. All the pieces of the state capture puzzle are not yet in place.

Third, we need to learn a lesson about the centrality of political accountability. Our democracy will not survive if we do not have a culture of entrenched political accountability. We did well to design oversight mechanisms at the dawn of democracy. These include the Chapter Nine oversight bodies, legislation to protect whistle-blowers, robust and independent media, multiparty democracy and a judiciary that does its work without fear or favour. We cannot be glib about these features of our democracy that act as a bulwark against the abuse of power.

But, despite them, we endured a shadow state for a long time. That tells us, although formal accountability mechanisms matter, there is ultimately no substitute for a culture of accountability. It must be part of the political fabric of democracy. If you have a culture of political accountability then, for example, political resignations will not strike you as praiseworthy but as necessary. You will then regard the politician who resigns when exposed for a lie as a pariah rather than a hero.

We need to grapple with the question of how we can deepen political accountability beyond the formal mechanisms we built into our democracy in 1994.

As for Ramaphosa, he would do well to put the country’s Constitution ahead of the ANC’s factional battles. Nene is not the only person who needs to go. There is a bunch of constitutional delinquents in his Cabinet who serve at his behest. If he doesn’t get rid of them swiftly then voters may yet hold him, and the ANC, accountable by turning the 2019 election into a referendum on the new dawn we were promised after the party’s conference at Nasrec in December.

This article’s headline was amended for clarity.

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Eusebius Mckaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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