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’

CityPress - - Voices and Careers -

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.


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