You know by now that politics in South Africa is not for sissies. And while we do follow Henry Kissinger’s dictum that the lower you go the messier things are, the higher you go, the sharper your elbows need to be. And when you are a newly appointed cabinet minister, you can expect people to start moving against you, almost from the start. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
In a way, it’s quite surprising that the first of the new batch of cabinet ministers to make it on to the front page of the Sunday Times is Roy Padayachie. He came in with a pretty clean reputation, was one of the few ministers with intimate knowledge of his portfolio, and seemed to be the first capable pair of hands in charge of the communications ministry since, well, since the rinderpest. The headlined accusation: that he used taxpayers’ money, sorry, our money, to live high on the hog at Pretoria’s Sheraton Hotel. That he spent “several days” a week there as deputy communications minister. The further claim is that he refused a government house saying it wasn’t good enough. In politics this would seem to be damning stuff. His ministry has form on this: his predecessor, the unlamented General (retd.) Siphiwe Nyanda got bust doing the same thing.
But there’s a curious point to this. Padayachie spent those nights in the hotel between 2004 and 2008. Now, while the court of public opinion doesn’t recognise a statute of limitations on these crimes, the timing is fascinating. Why has it come out now? Just three weeks to the day since he was appointed and as he promises major changes? Surely if it came out organically, that is through a reporter just digging his nose into an issue, or through a pissed-off employee, then it would have come out earlier. This would appear timed to maximize the damage. (We’re not saying Sunday Times reporter Sibusiso Ngalwa didn’t do his work – it’s a good story, a story in the public interest, and we should know about these things – we just find the timing of the apparent leak rather curious.)
Usually in these situations, you ask one simple question: who benefits? For many cynics there might be a man with a certain military record who would like his job back. He’s already refused an appointment as ambassador to Germany, so why wouldn’t Nyanda want to make life hell for his replacement. But that theory sounds unlikely: the refusal of an “ANC deployment” was a pretty risky move for Nyanda already.
Padayachie is in a position to threaten more people than any other new minister. For a start, any new chef is going to break a few eggs, and will have some thrown at him too. Then there’s the SABC crowd. There’s a lot at stake in the various battles there at the moment, with Solly Mokoetle against the board, the board against its chairperson, one could go on. Perhaps this is the first sign that the pestilential politics of the corporation is beginning to leak from Auckland Park into the upper echelons.
What this really tells us is that it is becoming almost commonplace for people to settle their scores using coded language in public. It’s one of the reasons some politicians hate the media so much. Because it’s so effective a weapon in the hands of their enemies. Because, if you’ve got a score to settle, it’s often the quickest way of doing someone real damage. And in the organisation that appears to have so many skeletons in its closet, fighting through media proxy becomes a real temptation.
Take Padayachie. He may, or may not, be a good honest person. He is a politician, but he doesn’t strike us as pure evil, and it seems there’s a genuine desire to sort out the department of communications, for the betterment of the country (although we worry about his apparent support for the Public Service Broadcasting Bill). He has a cogent defence of what happened (basically it’s Public Works’ fault, he actually found a house and took steps to move out once he realised what was going on). He will probably work hard to fix his ministry. But he will always have this hanging around his neck. He’s lost the man-of-the-people tag, and will find it very difficult to get it back. Because so many dodgy politicians routinely deny things that are later found to be true (like Smuts Ngonyama and “there are no divisions in the ANC”) no one really believes anyone who denies something anyway.
The upshot of all of this is that we are left with a very cynical populace, who believe all politicians are evil. Of course, we’re not unique in this, it’s one of the prices you pay for living in a democracy with a free media. And if we presume for a moment that Padayachie is completely clean, then surely we have all lost something when his name is tarnished. But we all know that this practice of using the media to bring down your opponents is going to continue. And that we are all going to be poorer for it. DM
Grootes is an EWN reporter
Read more: Sunday Times.