South Africa

South Africa: A conspiracy a day keeps a politician out of jail

By Ranjeni Munusamy 7 October 2013

You have to get up pretty early in the morning to come up with a political conspiracy that will stick and that will get people chanting your name outside a courtroom. Former National Youth Development Agency head Andile Lungisa seems to be a late riser. The conspiracy theory he has concocted to explain his arrest for corruption is so uninspired, even Kenny Kunene and Golden Miles Bhudu might find trouble buying it. So if you’re a political figure who stands a chance of landing in the dock, best you come up with a plausible conspiracy theory that can make you look less of a crook and more of a new struggle hero. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

President Jacob Zuma has set the bar very high when it comes to political conspiracy theories. His legal defence in both his corruption and rape trials included was pegged on a state-driven campaign to destroy his political career through malicious prosecution. His political support campaign which carried him to the gates of the presidency cast him as the ultimate political victim, fired as deputy president of the country, humiliated and dragged before the courts, abandoned by the then ANC leadership and hounded by the prosecuting authority. And yet he triumphed, beating the odds to become both the ANC and state president.

It was a comeback like no other and is undoubtedly the most epic saga of post-democracy South Africa. The problem now, though, is that many political leaders who find themselves in trouble seek to emulate the Zuma phenomenon, pedalling conspiracy theories that cast them as victims, hoping to draw sympathy, hordes of supporters and, with any luck, a dismissal of the charges against them.

The trick to a good conspiracy theory is the existence of sufficient evidence to make it sound believable and take root. In Zuma’s case, the prosecuting authority made sufficient blunders throughout to be able to show trace of an agenda. It went far enough for a high court judge to decide there was indeed a political conspiracy against Zuma (albeit that that judgment was later overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeal).

No other conspiracy prior or since has been so solid that it was able to stand up in court. The fact that it did seems to inspire others to follow the same course in their defence.

Former police commissioner Jackie Selebi did not have the same luck. In his corruption and fraud trial, Selebi’s defence included the argument that those who pursued the case against him were themselves corrupt. The argument did not hold water and Selebi was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. (He was released on medical parole in July 2012.)

Former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema has to make his conspiracy argument fly on several fronts. Malema’s line that Zuma had a vendetta against him first arose during his ANC disciplinary case but it bore no weight in the decision to expel him from the party. If anything, his accusations against the president added further fuel to the already significant fire that was bringing to an end his career in the ANC.

Malema kept alive the conspiracy when he was arrested for money laundering in connection with government contracts in Limpopo. In his first few court appearances, Malema was able to draw crowds of supporters who were receptive to his raging about the conspiracy against him. But as time progressed, evidence emerged through the prosecution and the Public Protector’s investigation showing how Malema allegedly benefited from Limpopo transport department tenders awarded to the company On-Point Engineering, which paid money into his Ratanang Family Trust.

But Malema’s conspiracy theory still had traction. His argument was that state departments were being used to strip and humiliate him through the corruption case and the auctioning off of his possessions to settle unpaid tax bills. It did seem rather coincidental that Malema came under scrutiny only after he fell out of favour in the ANC. As Malema awaits trial, he has reinvented himself politically as the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters. He now uses the EFF platform to keep his conspiracy theory afloat and attack those he says plotted against him – primarily Zuma.

But while the conspiracy theory might prop Malema up politically, and keep his supporters fired up, he has to find a way to make the argument stand legally in order to escape conviction and jail time. In order to do this, he will have to show that the prosecution is malicious and politically motivated. This is easier said than done, as while a soapbox requires no evidence, a court does.

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi does not have to defend himself in a court of law, as he is not charged with any crime, but the internal investigations against him could mark the end of his career in the federation. Vavi is facing a litany of allegations, ranging from financial impropriety to abuse of his powers, and most recently bringing Cosatu into disrepute by having sex at work with a junior employee.

Vavi and his supporters have been adamant that all the investigations against him are driven by people in Cosatu, the ANC and the SACP who are determined to silence or oust Vavi from the federation. Vavi’s argument of a plot against him is helped along by media reports over the past year revealing anger and bitterness against him for being critical of the government. The tensions within Cosatu are no secret, and were it not for his dalliance with his work colleague, Vavi would have maintained the moral high ground and the sympathy of Cosatu members and the public.

But as things stand, Vavi and his supporters have battled to explain the sexual encounter in the context of the conspiracy. Vavi’s desperation to fight off the initial allegation of rape led to him admitting to an affair with the Cosatu staffer, which showed that the sexual encounter was an intentional act on his part. Vavi’s survival in Cosatu now depends on the convening of a special congress and convincing the membership of the federation that there has been a concerted effort to hound him out. Vavi’s opponents, like everyone else, know that most Cosatu members already believe that there is a plot against him, which is why they are averse to the idea of a special Cosatu congress.

The former head of the National Youth Development Agency Andile Lungisa is the latest politician to appear in the dock for corruption. Lungisa, the former deputy president of the ANC Youth League, appeared in the Johannesburg Specialised Commercial Crime Court on Friday for alleged fraud and money-laundering. He appeared with three other people for allegedly accepting and sharing among themselves R2.5 million from the Department of Arts and Culture for the Nelson Mandela Sports Day concert. They allegedly lied that they had arranged for US megastar R Kelly to perform at the concert. They are now out on bail.

But before he was even out of the courthouse, Lungisa was claiming to journalists that his case was politically motivated. He accused the Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula of colluding with the police to have him charged and instructing the prosecution to oppose bail. Lungisa’s conspiracy is that Mbalula has an old vendetta against him as he did not support the sports minister’s bid to become ANC secretary general at the party’s elective conference in Mangaung last year.

Mbalula said Lungisa’s antics were laughable and clearly demonstrated calculated actions of an individual who seeks political refuge from his situation.

“His claims that I have an axe to grind with him because he opposed my candidacy as secretary general of the ANC at the Mangaung conference, are at best laughable, and at worst smack of blatant political opportunism. Lungisa is no kingmaker in the ANC and to suggest that he wields such political power to sway the fate of individual leaders is nothing short of delusions of grandeur,” Mbalula said in a statement.

Mbalula said the merits of the case should be tested in court and pledged to testify about Lungisa’s involvement in the R Kelly matter.

Lungisa probably did not expect Mbalula to come back fighting and flatten his conspiracy theory before the weekend was out. He probably believed that people are still fixated on the divides in the ANC from a year ago, and could be convinced that he had some significant role in Gwede Mantashe retaining his position as ANC secretary general. Why else would Mbalula come after Lungisa, of all people?

When questions were raised after the concert as to why R Kelly did not perform, Lungisa offered no explanation. He could not have seriously believed that the matter would just go away and that only Mbalula harbouring an old vendetta would set the authorities on him. Lungisa has the additional problem of having public sentiment against him for the R100 million youth festival he hosted in 2010 as chair of the NYDA, which became known as the “kissing festival”.

But this will probably not stop him from trying to keep the conspiracy theory alive.

In South Africa, conspiracies are apparently the best defence for political survival. The fact that conspiracy theories have collapsed or fizzled out in the past does not seem to discourage people from trying to package new ones to explain their disgraces. As long as there are people willing to believe them, they are bound to keep coming.

South Africa’s political figures are seen as celebrities, which is why people are willing to rally behind them in courts and elevate them even when they fall from grace. It is this hero-worshipping that allows corruption and conspiracy to become two sides of the same coin. It is also what allows corrupt politicians to keep exploiting their positions, as they know there will always be people gullible enough to believe a yarn that will exonerate them. DM

Photo by Reuters.

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