Don’t praise Nene for do­ing the right thing

He can’t seek for­give­ness with­out say­ing what he has done wrong — it can’t be just a cup of tea

Mail & Guardian - - Comment Analysis - Euse­bius McKaiser

Iwon­der 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 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?

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’ hard­earned 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.

It was Nene’s duty not to sign off an agree­ment that was eco­nom­i­cally un­jus­ti­fied. That is what he was ap­pointed to do

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