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22 September 2017 09:58 (South Africa)
South Africa

Op-Ed: Would the alleged Radebe sexts endanger his career? Unlikely.

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa
Photo: Then Justice Minister Jeff Radebe speaks at a briefing in Pretoria on Friday, 21 September 2012 about the probe into the Marikana shootings. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

The Sunday Times report that Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe has been involved in exchanging sexual messages with a government photographer may be part of a political conspiracy. Noteworthy, however, has been the accompanying suggestion that the alleged scandal “could end Radebe’s presidential hopes”. If one looks at the history of such incidents involving powerful men in South Africa, what on earth would lead one to that conclusion? By REBECCA DAVIS.

Sex scandal” is one of the most versatile phrases in the South African lexicon. In the wake of the Sunday Times report about Minister Jeff Radebe’s alleged sexting history, a number of media outlets have seen fit to publish handy reminders of other homegrown political “sex scandals”.

Tabloid Sunday World carried one such list on Monday. Of the 10 “sex scandals” listed, four actually refer to allegations of rape or sexual harassment: against President Jacob Zuma, former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi , ex-ANC Western Cape chair Marius Fransman, and current DA chief whip in the Bhisho legislature Edmund van Vuuren.

Whether the wink-wink term “sex scandals” is appropriately employed to describe accusations of serious criminal misconduct is, perhaps, a question of taste. But the label’s increasingly vague deployment proposes something more concerning: that we have become accustomed to lumping together everything to do with politicians and sex into one category. That suggests a moral equivalence which is clearly false, and dangerous. An acknowledged extramarital affair between consenting adults should be viewed as inhabiting a different moral universe to rape.

The trouble is, in South Africa, that it’s often difficult to know which situation we’re dealing with. The incidents involving Zuma and Vavi are illustrative here. In both cases, the men involved acknowledged that sex occurred, but said it was consensual. In both cases, the women involved disagreed (though Vavi’s accuser later dropped her charge). President Zuma was cleared of rape after legal proceedings which remain controversial. But the lingering question that will remain in such contexts is what “consent” truly means when dealing with men in uber-powerful positions.

Of the 10 cases listed by Sunday World, however, one factor is unambiguous. In only one of the cases to date – that of former ANC chair Marius Fransman – has the man at the heart of the “scandal” seen his political career suffer serious damage. The other men continue to wield positions of power and influence.

Against this backdrop, does anyone seriously expect that Jeff Radebe’s future political aspirations will be knocked by the current revelations?

Time and again, we have seen that the people who suffer most from such “scandals” are the women who go up against powerful men. The most tragic and shameful example of this was the treatment meted out to Fezeka Kuzwayo (Khwezi) after accusing Jacob Zuma of rape, with Kuzwayo forced to flee overseas. But Kuzwayo’s is not an isolated case.

Zwelinzima Vavi was placed on “special leave” by Cosatu for eight months after junior staffer Jacqueline Phooko accused him of sexual harassment, but it would be overstating matters to suggest that his reputation has been permanently tarnished by the incident.

Phooko, on the other hand, told the Sunday World that after the scandal she “could not bring herself to leave her home for fear of being ridiculed in public”. Vavi went on to refer to Phooko at a public rally as a “nopatazana”, translated as a “woman with loose morals”.

Reaching further back into South African history, AWB leader Eugene Terreblanche’s credibility may have been damaged among his supporters by his alleged affair with journalist Jani Allan, but it was arguably minimal compared to the impact on the life and reputation of Allan.

One of the only contexts in which South African politicians can sometimes expect to receive formal sanction for the consequences of their chaotic private lives is when it is revealed that they have been misusing state resources in order to manage them.

Former co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister Sicelo Shiceka had fathered 19 children by the time of his death at 45 in 2012. A City Press report in 2011 stated that Shiceka’s department “had seen an exodus of female employees” due to Shiceka’s sexually predatory ways, and that “other women were afraid to visit his office”.

Despite Shiceka’s philandering being an open secret, it was corruption that felled him. The minister was axed after a Public Protector report found that he had abused the executive ethics code to the tune of over R1-million in travel expenses for himself and friends, including female partners.

It is pretty standard within a South African context for corruption to be taken more seriously than abusive treatment of women. In fact, many other misdeeds in a political context are deemed worthy of more serious punishment.

In February 2015, DA MP Archibald Figlan forced a female staffer to touch his crotch – an event confirmed by three witnesses. In October of the same year, the DA’s disciplinary committee allowed Figlan to keep his job, subject to a donation to a crime NGO, community service and a letter of apology to the complainant. In the same month, the outcome of DA MP Dianne Kohler-Barnard’s disciplinary hearing for having reposted a racist Facebook post was that she should be expelled from the party.

Kohler-Barnard successfully appealed the decision, and remains within the DA today. As we pointed out at the time of the original verdicts, however, it was troubling that Figlan received a comparatively light rebuke for a publically witnessed act of sexual assault.

In South Africa it is not just possible for male politicians to escape political sanction for bad personal behaviour, but to do so while holding positions which directly contradict their own actions. This was the case with ANC MP Jihad Mohapi Mohapi, who was chairing a National Council of Provinces committee tasked with dealing with women’s issues in 2015 while being investigated for beating his ex-lover after she ended their affair.

Whether Radebe’s alleged actions will cause him reputational damage among ordinary South African citizens is an open question. It is also of little relevance, because ordinary South African citizens do not directly elect ANC presidents. All it takes is a peek at history, however, to know that sexual misconduct very rarely spells doom for a powerful South African man. DM

Photo: Then Justice Minister Jeff Radebe speaks at a briefing in Pretoria on Friday, 21 September 2012 about the probe into the Marikana shootings. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa

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