When I proudly took the oath of office as an ANC MP it struck me that when one becomes a Member of Parliament, you are more than just a member of a political party. You swear fealty to the country and the Constitution. I had to bear this in mind when, in late 2000, the Auditor-General’s office presented a report to Parliament on prima facie evidence of corruption in the purchase of between R60-billion and R70-billion of weapons that the country didn’t really need. The report came to Parliament’s crucial financial oversight body, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), on which I was the senior ANC member, chairing the party’s Study Group.
We addressed the report as we had all other matters: not along party-political lines but purely on the basis of whether the spending had conformed to financial management legislation and regulations. It soon became apparent that the deal had violated numerous financial procedures. After a public hearing in which the head of procurement in the SANDF, Shamin “Chippy” Shaik, lied to us, as well as other enquiries, it was also clear that the deal involved much greater corruption than the Auditor-General had documented. (Years later, after investigating the transactions around the world, I and colleagues concluded that total corruption in the deal totalled around R4-billion.)
Scopa ordered a multi-agency investigation, which was approved by Parliament, with the ANC whips not realising the import of what they were agreeing to. The ANC leadership was furious. The ruling party members of Scopa were hauled before a meeting of the party’s Governance Committee, where an enraged Minister in the Presidency, Essop Pahad, demanded that we withdraw the resolution. Next we endured a similarly vituperative meeting with a number of the ministers involved in the deal. A few more friendly comrades I was close to were used to try and persuade me to stop the investigation by gentler means, one explaining that I couldn’t win on this issue as the party itself had benefited from the bribes.
The Presidency then engineered a full frontal assault in which the Speaker, Frene Ginwala, who had initially supported the investigation, turned on me; the President refused to allow a key investigating unit to participate in the probe and accused us publicly of being part of a conspiracy to discredit the government and the “major international companies” involved. The fact that these arms companies account for 40% of corruption in world trade was conveniently ignored.
I was called to a meeting by the Speaker and whips, where many of my ANC colleagues on Scopa had been persuaded of this laughable conspiracy theory. I was told to make a press statement denying corruption in the deal. I reluctantly did so, but within an hour realised I’d made a mistake and, with the Scopa Committee chair, Gavin Woods, retracted the statement and re-committed myself to exposing the truth.
In short order I was removed as chair of the Study Group by the ANC’s Chief Whip, Tony Yengeni, who was later convicted of fraud for lying to Parliament about a gift he had received from one of the bidding companies on the deal. Some wavering ANC members on Scopa were replaced by loyal whips and Yengeni announced that “the ANC, from the President downwards, will now exercise political control over Scopa”. Scopa’s role as a non-partisan arbiter on matters of financial management, and a key check and balance on the Executive, was over. In meetings under the new regime, ANC members on the committee were even told what questions to ask ministers appearing before them. The Speaker ruled out any meaningful role for the committee in any investigation, contradicting what her legal adviser had told us. So much for Parliament’s oversight role.
Gavin and I criticised the role that Frene had played in the whole debacle, especially as she had initially told us she would resign if anyone tried to stop a proper investigation. So the ANC cynically called a debate showing support for and appreciation of the Speaker. I was shocked when, in the debate, comrades who had privately expressed support for my attempts to ensure a proper investigation of the corruption publicly launched attacks on Scopa and endorsed the corrupt deal. I could not bring myself to vote with the ANC.
As I trudged out of the Chamber and up the hill towards my home I received a call from a Parliamentary official. “I just wanted to check that there was no error [in recording your vote.] If it was a mistake we can correct it.” I still had an opportunity to change my mind. … “There was no error”, I replied. I simply could not vote to endorse the Speaker’s role in the ANC leadership’s strategy to close down any meaningful investigation into the biggest corruption scandal we have experienced in our brief democratic history. I knew the deal was corrupt (see) and I knew that the system of checks and balances that had been introduced after 1994 was being subverted. I had pledged an oath – an affirmation actually – not to the ANC, but to Parliament and the Constitution, both of which were being violated.
The ANC told me to resign before the next session started, or I would be removed from the party list. On resigning I wrote to our retired first President, Nelson Mandela:
“The main reason for my resignation is the manner in which government has handled the arms deal. It has become impossible for me to engage in Parliament without raising the ire of the leadership or compromising my own integrity. I further believe that the way Parliament has been marginalised has potentially harmful consequences for our democracy. Thank you for the extraordinary opportunity that I have had of playing a very small role in the first seven and a half years of our democracy. It has been a privilege and an honour to serve you, the organisation and, thus, the people of South Africa.”
As the Mail & Guardian editorialised at the time, the Arms Deal and its cover-up were the point at which the democratic South Africa lost its moral compass. Parliament was subverted to the narrow needs of the ruling party. It was now acceptable to utilise massive state contracts for the illegal material gain of individuals and the party. And to compel constitutionally independent bodies to do the party’s bidding in order to cover up corruption.
During this whole saga Jacob Zuma privately supported my efforts to investigate the deal. However, once his financial adviser had received an encrypted fax from one of the successful bidders on the deal confirming that money would be paid to Zuma to “protect the company’s interests in South Africa”, he stopped all communication with me and allowed Thabo Mbeki’s minions to remove me. I had served my purpose.
Immediately after resigning I obviously questioned whether I could do more by staying within the ANC and Parliament. But I realised that I would never be able to identify or speak out against corruption or any other malfeasance by members of my own party, as I would have effectively covered up the biggest corruption scandal in our nascent democracy. I could have stayed on to receive a generous salary and the perks of office, while doing nothing of consequence and knowing always that I had betrayed the electorate, Parliament, the Constitution and my own values.
Vaclav Havel, playwright, dissident and one-time president of Czechoslovakia, described politics as “selfless service to one’s fellow human beings, as morality in practice, based on conscience and truth”. After experiencing the privileges of political office Havel suggested that there is a critical moment when many politicians “cease to be concerned with the interests of the country for whose sake we tolerate these privileges and start to be concerned with the advantages themselves”. He concludes:
“Politics places greater stress on moral sensitivity, on the ability to reflect critically on oneself, on genuine responsibility, on the capacity to empathise with others, on humility. It is a job for modest people, for people who cannot be deceived. Politics is work of a kind that requires especially pure people, because it is especially easy to become morally tainted.”
In other words, politics requires people like Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada. And at all costs, selfish, dishonest, arrogant thieves should be prevented from holding elected office, or removed from it when they do.
It is true that there are very few Mandelas, Kathradas and Havels, and far too many Zumas, Dlaminis and Trumps. The real tragedy of South Africa’s hard-won democracy is not that we are so much worse than the rest of the world, but rather how quickly we conformed to the tawdry global norms of politics in which we, like the United States of America, have “the best democracy money can buy”.
South Africa’s MPs now have the opportunity to decide which side they are on: honesty, integrity, accountability and the poor majority who desperately require an effective, accountable, honest government; or corruption, deceit and subterfuge – the interests of a small elite who are robbing the country and destroying the fundamental tenets of our democracy for personal gain.
Considering that President Zuma has been found by the Constitutional Court to have violated the Constitution, no MP can vote to keep him in office and be faithful to their oath. The oath or affirmation clearly demands loyalty to the country, not the party leadership, and requires MPs to seriously consider whether their actions help or harm the country, or respect or violate the Constitution. The oath implies that an MP is required to defer to the country’s interests and that of the Constitution where there is conflict between those interests and what the party that put you in Parliament wants; the oath, in other words, demands that MPs exercise discretion at all times to check that they are abiding by its precepts.
As I said to MPs in Parliament at the time of Scopa’s attempts to investigate the Arms Deal: “We at all times work for the people of South Africa, whose money we are, after all, talking about today.”
I hope that many MPs will vote with their conscience, will vote to reaffirm the oath that they solemnly swore, will vote in the interests of our beloved country and its remarkable Constitution. DM
Andrew Feinstein is a former ANC MP. He was forced out of Parliament after refusing to heed the ANC leadership’s demand to close down investigations into South Africa’s corrupt Arms Deal. He is the author of After the Party: A Personal & Political Journey Inside the ANC and The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, which has been made into an international feature documentary film. He is Executive Director of Corruption Watch UK.
Photo: State Security Minister David Mahlobo with President Jacob Zuma at the ANC policy conference, 5 July 2017, Nasrec. (Ihsaan Haffejee)
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