FORGIVENESS 1, JUSTICE 0
In a week punctuated by Freedom Day, Ferial Haffajee asks when SA will accord accountability and justice the same heft as it does the word ‘sorry’
Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu once made an observation about the media that altered how I saw things. “There must be,” she said, “the possibility of redemption.” Her observation was made about how the media, in her view, hounded politicians found doing wrong – I think the instance she spoke about referred to the ANC’s Tony Yengeni, who was the first post-apartheid politician found guilty of corruption.
The ANC was outraged and sang Yengeni into and out of court.
Corruption must be prosecuted, of course. But Sisulu’s words struck a chord, for I had long been dismayed by how my tribe’s people can hunt. My own bugbear was a media narrative that always added the tag “Magoo’s bar bomber” to any description of Robert McBride – without showing any sense of our history and the role of the armed struggle in that history and McBride’s role in that struggle.
Sisulu’s words have been ingrained in my media practice, where we try only to report and not to prosecute or hold trials by media – that’s the work of the institutions that are meant to do so. The possibility of redemption and of “making right” lie at the heart of South Africa’s political philosophy, but not always our practice.
Instead, I find our punditry extremely impatient with failure. One of the best practices of Media24 and Naspers, where I work, is the injunction to staff to try to not to be afraid of failing. But if you do fail, fail fast and try not to do it again. Our team had a discussion about this in relation to the pugnacious and exciting young MEC for education in Gauteng, Panyaza Lesufi.
He is so innovative and energetic that there is a running giggle in our news conference for how often we make him our “Hot” of the week – the City Press accolade for good performance. Two weeks ago, for the first time ever, we made him our “Not” – our weekly diss for poor performance. It was a sad day for us. This was because of the disastrous online schoolregistration scheme he started prematurely and amateurly. Run from his office, it flopped miserably and pushed parents into a panic. There is almost nothing more important than getting your little one into the best possible public school. Lesufi’s intentions were good, the execution appalling. However, we asked ourselves, hadn’t US President Barack Obama’s first efforts at getting more Americans signed up online for a revolutionary healthcare plan been similarly beset by problems? Leaders are human beings. But what when leaders keep failing themselves and the nation? Our president has survived his sixth major scandal and has spent, I would argue, years of his seven-year presidency defending himself against scandals. They are so frequent that there has not been time to calculate the cost to the fiscus of these defences. But the bigger cost has been in the loss of attention to the detail of governing: our country is flailing and achieving less than it could (even with a slow-growth economy) because the state is distracted by the requirements of defending its leader. The Constitutional Court found in its judgment on Nkandla that President Jacob Zuma had breached his duty to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution. It does not get more serious than this, as much as the ANC has tried to whittle the breach down from serious to minor. Instead, we have been asked to forgive the president and accept his apology – it is, after all, the South African way.
The highlighting of the president’s contrition with a consequent request that we forgive him and accept his apology has been a key element of the strategy to get the president through the haunting Nkandla scandal.
One of the most common refrains across our public life is “Argh! Shame!” It is a deeply humane spirit that foreigners remark upon. And it is delightful. But when does our accountability spirit kick in? Accountability is also written into the Constitution in the form of the chapter 9 institutions enshrined in the founding document (the Public Protector is the best known). By being asked to accept a series of apologies from our president, we have downgraded accountability and its twin – justice.
So, while Sisulu is right in calling upon us to exercise the redemptive spirit, what do you do about the requirement of accountability? The ANC is currently in search of the racist estate agent Penny Sparrow who, at the beginning of the year, detonated our race bomb when she called black beachgoers monkeys. Party secretary-general Gwede Mantashe is fronting an equality court case against Sparrow for her racist ways. Seeking justice against racism is important, and using the courts to do so is provided for in law, which the ANC is using. In other words, theirs is an act of accountability and a search for justice.
But if the powerful governing party is consistent, then Sparrow should be forgiven. However, that will not stand 22 years into democracy – we have to become antiracist to become nonracial. The party’s consistency will be fundamentally challenged. Its desire for accountability and justice must be exercised in relation to President Zuma, or the ANC will be guilty of double standards.
THE ANC WAS OUTRAGED AND SANG YENGENI INTO AND OUT OF COURT