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24 April 2014 20:14 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ebrahim Fakir

The danger of sacrificing principle at the altar of greater power

  • Ebrahim Fakir
“Let’s agree that there is a crisis of critical thinking in today’s South Africa”. So started a column by Eusebius Mckaiser in The Star, 2 December 2013. Quite so. Just how much of a crisis - not just of critical thinking among citizens, but of proper thinking among leaders - is revealed when one reflects on statements made by the Secretary General of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe. Mantashe said something of such profound import that, to a myopic public, its impact was undermined by its importance.

Speaking to Cosau affiliate Satawu, he said: “You can pursue Vavi, but if the price you pay to pursue Vavi is to split Cosatu, it is not worth the price. Try something else.”

When Mantashe made this statement, he perhaps unwittingly confirmed one of two fundamental truths about our contemporary politics. Either, that unity can be preserved above a principled commitment to the value of due process, or that our politics is rife with conspiracy. Neither suggests anything good. Our media and public commentary missed this.

While chasing the story of whether or not Numsa would indeed split from the ANC, as if that act would itself constitute the sinking or saving of our politics, the media missed the admissions Mantashe was making; that we can overlook alleged misdemeanours committed by individuals if the ANC alliance’s unity, and its grip on power, is threatened.

Worse still, allegations need not even be tested. Either that, or allegations of impropriety alleged against powerful and popular individuals are frequently not the result of actual wrongdoing, but of their being framed.

The first of the possible truths that Mantashe betrays is that preserving the “unity” and maintaining political power through having Cosatu remain intact for the 2014 elections is more important to the ANC and the alliance than following any prescribed due process. So it doesn’t matter if Vavi is alleged to have committed two (or more) egregious wrongs. If even testing whether he may have committed a wrong risks unity, then it’s acceptable to overlook it. If that is not what Mantashe suggested, then what are we to make of the “try something else”?

The second possible truth is that it is okay to disregard due process, because presumably the accused appearing before a duly constituted disciplinary proceeding may be wrongly accused or has a set of manufactured allegations made against them that is the result of meddling, framing or victimisation. In short - framing. If so, then our politics is awash with conspiracy, intrigue, manipulation and selective prosecution through internal organisational disciplinary processes, or the courts. Our politics is therefore not transparent, not a contest of superior ideas or effective organisation.

Our politics is the prevalence of superior techniques of intrigue, framing and underhandedness. This itself is okay if it preserves unity and maintains a firm(er) grip on power by the ANC alliance.

This reasoning, however, didn’t work for Malema. It shouldn’t have worked for Jacob Zuma, but it did. The argument shouldn’t work for Vavi either. But realpolitik is such, and the ANC Alliance is now operating squarely in this realm, that principle can be sacrificed at the altar of greater power. If Malema needs any indication of just how seriously the ANC took him, and how seriously it takes the threat posed by his new party, this example should make things clear. To be sure, there is an element within the ANC that would prefer to have Malema in the ANC and mitigate the risk the EFF might pose in eroding some of the ANC’s electoral support. But the mainstream and relatively homogeneous ANC NEC, rightly or wrongly, has confidence that the EFF is not too much of a threat. Vavi’s disciplining, Numsa’s split and its consequences on the ANC, they calculate, are much more serious and risky and are therefore of a different magnitude. Thus, sacrificing predictability, consistency and equal application of the principles of natural justice, or even the internal organisational rules of Cosatu, can be readily sacrificed.

Credibility of processes, organisational rules, the integrity of institutions, all these mean less for Mantashe, and the ANC on whose behalf he presumably speaks, than maintaining alliance unity in the lead-up to elections, and a continued firm grip on power.

Sadly, there is nothing in what Mantashe says in these three lines that can purport to support the creation of a fundamentally new ethical social, political and cultural order different from the impunity and lack of accountability experienced under apartheid.

Such relativity in moral and ethical reasoning undermines the construction of a new social order built on accountability and integrity in which new social and political norms are established, and a new institutional infrastructure that is underpinned by a set of predictable and consistently applied rules that can take root for the good of society. Such a startlingly clear lack of commitment to principle among our senior political leaders can prove socially explosive for our politics in the long term. DM

  • Ebrahim Fakir
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Ebrahim Fakir works at the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa (EISA) which he joined in February 2009. He was previously analyst at the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg (2003-2009) and also worked at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) [1998-2003] in both Pretoria and Cape Town. He was a Draper Hills Summer Fellow at the Centre for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University in 2011. He is also an advisory council member of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC). When not writing or thinking about politics and governance he dresses well. He was recognised for this by GQ magazine in 2009, and again in 2013.


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