Over the last 36 hours the confluence of two events has shown us an awful amount about our country. Neither was earth-shattering of its own. Both were meaty lengthy documents, one a judgment, the other a report. Both were for academics, written by the most erudite among us. But taken together they are very illuminative about the nature of problems that haunt South Africa. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
The first was the release, finally, of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) report into the causes of violent crime. The second; the judgment denying the DA’s application to declare Menzi Simelane “not fit and proper” to be the national director of public prosecutors.
Some history is needed for both.
First, the report. Colloquially, this was the document that would finally explain why a normal robbery turns into an armed robbery turns into a murder. Or, if you like, why the middle class lives in fear, when actually it’s the poor who suffer far more. This was the report that was completed early last year, at government’s request. It was then sat on. Hard. For a long time. When it was finally released it was damned with faint praise by ANC MPs. It was declared “not a complete waste of time”.
Of course, the number of people outside the CSVR’s Braamfontein headquarters who’ve actually read the entire thing could probably be counted on two hands. But fear not, we found the energy. And it’s possible we are ahead of some MPs who don’t seem to have, as the centre put it, “fully engaged with the report”. (It’s in five parts, and you can find it on the home page.)
If you have time to read only one, “Why does SA have such high rates of violent crime” is quick, the others are much longer.
First things first. It’s written by academics. Some of them with pasts in Gun-Free SA, or people who are anti-military from the End Conscription Campaign. So there’s a lot on the number of guns in society. There’s even more about inequality, poverty and the ruin of a people by apartheid. It’s easy to claim that’s just worthy stuff, but in this case, it really is the story. Some serious thought by people with very serious IQs has gone into it, and they’ve come up with new angles. There’s a section on “the politics of violent crime”, case studies of people who are currently in jail and how they got there, the trip from young boy to violent man, with plenty of numbers on “sharp-edge crimes vs gun-crimes”. Did you know that in the Western Cape murders by “sharp-edge” outweigh gun-murders? Tells you a lot about the culture of a community, that. Or about a man called “Lucky” who thought his “gun was his world, his prized possession”. And when one of his good friends borrowed it, he had to murder him, otherwise “I would have no power, nothing”.
For something written by academics, it’s a real page-turner.
Then to a paragraph that seems pretty damning of our current crop of leaders. We’ve quoted the whole paragraph, so we don’t get anything out of context.
“The policies used to address the legacy of apartheid in the post-apartheid period have also seen the fairly rapid enrichment of a black elite. This and other facets of the post-apartheid period have fed into the impression that leaders prioritise the enrichment of themselves and people close to them and that corruption is pervasive. The absence of leaders who distinctively set a good example for people may contribute to them feeling that they have little motivation to invest in the legal framework of the new order contributing to a social environment where involvement in crime, and violent crime, is widely tolerated.”
For us the money section is “The absence of leaders who distinctively set a good example…”. It’s wonderfully couched, but it can only mean one thing: Our leaders suck. They are corrupt. They don’t care about the poor. This would be easier to argue against if it were not President Jacob Zuma’s strange path to power. Has the time come to ask, what damage has been wrought to our society by the fact that everyone knows our head of state has serious questions to answer about corruption? And how that attitude towards the law may trickle down?
This may not be so pertinent if the other big issue of the day wasn’t about Menzi Simelane. You’ll remember there were howls of protest when he was appointed NPA boss. And quite rightly, in our opinion. Frene Ginwala clearly feels he lied under oath during her inquiry into Vusi Pikoli, and there were those remarks about the executive (i.e. the justice minister and thus the president) being able to overrule the NPA.
But we weren’t surprised the North Gauteng high court ruled against the DA’s application to declare him “not fit and proper”. Firstly, why on earth was an acting judge hearing this case? Nothing against Pieter van der Byl, but such a serious issue demands serious treatment. Surely a case that could see the president being overruled, with huge implications for that little nexus between the executive and the judiciary should have had a senior judge hear it. Was Gauteng Judge President Bernard Ngoepe asleep at his watch? This should never have happened.
Secondly, it’s a case complicated by the fact that there is no procedure to appoint an NDPP. No hearing, no process, the president simply appoints him/her. However, the person has to be “competent to appear in all courts in the Republic”, and “a fit and proper person”. How the DA must have come to love that little clause over the last few weeks. That was the phrase they had to attack. While Judge Van der Byl has ruled against the DA, he’s given them plenty to appeal, as they surely will.
Firstly, he says there’s no evidence the president ever considered any other candidates. Thus it seems Zuma had decided Simelane it would be and Simelane it was. There’s the suggestion that Simelane “on the averments before me” is not an uncontroversial person, or even the most experienced person. We are talking about the biggest, most important legal person in the country here, the person who decides who gets charged and with what. In his decision, Van der Byl speaks openly of his wonder that the legislature hasn’t prescribed an open and transparent process that should be followed in appointing an NDPP.
It’s an excellent point, and one that has been echoed by another judge, Chris Nicolson as it happens during his judgment that led to the recall of President Thabo Mbeki. And it’s not just them: now-deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe suggested the same when he was president.
There cannot be a bigger finger of warning about our current administration than the Simelane issue. He is someone difficult to trust. He is not experienced (he’s just 38). He believes, or says he did, that a minister gets to tell the national director of public prosecutions what to do. If ever there was an error of judgement in choosing a person to run SA’s prosecutions, Simelane is it.
At the moment he’s in the middle of what will become a hugely political trial because he decided to prosecute the ANC’s Northern Cape heavyweight John Block himself. Once a trial starts, you cannot predict what will happen, and one can bet it is going to get political. And he will have made a gift of an appeal to Block on the ground that Simelane himself is a political animal. And what would happen if Block were to offer a plea-bargain, but for reasons of public face Simelane were to turn down an offer a politically-untainted prosecutor would have accepted?
As a group of some of the country’s cleverest people warns about the dangers of bad leadership, the continuing Menzi Simelane saga shows why people won’t use the legal system if they can’t trust their leaders. Zuma has done many good things as president, as anyone vulnerable to both Aids and crime will tell you. But the toxic combination of a violent society and pervasive lack of trust in its leaders has the capacity to become the festering sore of his administration, the boiling pot of pus that will ooze around and infect everyone.
Ask the CSVR. They have the numbers to show our society is very sick indeed – and showing few signs of getting better any time soon. DM
Grootes is an EWN reporter.
"Go down this set of stairs and then just run - run as fast as you can." ~ Lt David Brink, 9/11