Analysis

South Africa’s inexhaustible blaming desire — and why we should proceed with caution

By Stephen Grootes 17 October 2018

Original photo: SARS Commissioner Tom Moyane during the budget lock up in parliament on 21 February 2018 shortly before Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba's maiden Budget Speech. Photo by Leila Dougan

We are living through another blame and finger-pointing season. The EFF appears to blame the Reserve Bank and the Treasury (and, somehow, Pravin Gordhan) for the VBS bank scandal. The ANC and DA are relentless too, and almost everyone is blaming the Sunday Times and its now former journalists for what happened at SARS. Everyone, everywhere, blames other people for everything, for corruption, for crime, for the last 10 years, for the last 24 years, for the 342 years before that. In a democracy such as ours, it is expected and human. But when the blame game is based on politics and not facts, it is to the detriment of us all.

In all politics, everywhere, it is difficult to apportion blame in an objective way. Where blame lies will depend on the individual history, views, and lived reality of a voter. But when considering how much blame is presently being thrown around in South Africa it is important to be as objective as possible; it will strengthen the search for facts and limit the damage wrought by fake news. If one apportions blame on a factual basis it is more likely the right person will be blamed for an act of wrongdoing.

Take the claim by EFF leader Julius Malema that one of the actors to blame for the VBS scandal was the Reserve Bank. The bank had no way of knowing that three separate groups of people were all lying. First the bankers and the beneficiaries themselves, then the internal auditors and then the external auditors KPMG, who by now are going to need divine intervention to survive as a going concern in this country.

This had never happened before.

And it happened not just because of the situation in the bank, but because of the political situation outside the bank. It was the ANC, probably through then President Jacob Zuma, which created a situation in which ANC mayors, through ANC officials, decided to place government money with the bank, despite knowing that they were breaking Treasury guidelines by doing so.

If we do accept that human beings have agency, the ability to make decisions about what is right and wrong (and the fact that financial officers in some municipalities and in Prasa prevented those bodies from depositing money in VBS then surely we must), then it is those humans who must carry the blame. And if one of them is Brian Shivambu then he too must take the blame.

A similar dissonance may be happening around the Sunday Times. For the longest time now, a harsh opinion piece follows thundering opinion piece about the damage done to SARS and the Hawks by the newspaper’s false reporting of a “rogue unit” at the organisation and a Cato Manor “death squad”.

There is certainly a complicated and heated debate to have around whether or not the journalists involved should now publish the names of their sources, who were clearly acting in bad faith. But the tone of these opinion pieces in blaming the Sunday Times for what followed may be misplaced. It is not the fault of Mzilikazi wa Afrika or Stefan Hofstatter that SARS was eviscerated. That is the fault of now suspended SARS Commissioner Tom Moyane, and those who plotted with him (including the consultancy Bain and Company). They did it. And they benefited from it.

The Sunday Times was a victim of a well-orchestrated plot with a political agenda. The journalists involved were almost certainly duped. It is likely that there is nothing anyone can say to them to make them feel any worse about what happened. As people formerly seen as the top people in their field they will themselves know the magnitude of what they got wrong — unless there was some bad faith on their part. Or if they now refuse to accept the reality of how they were duped.

But it is also important to make a following point too: While the Sunday Times is the biggest media organisation in the country after the SABC, it is likely that if it had not been duped, someone else would have been. In other words, it is entirely possible that what happened at SARS would have happened anyway, even if it had not been the Sunday Times. Or even if another strategy had been used. This does not absolve those concerned of blame. But they should be blamed for shoddy journalism, not destroying SARS. For that we should blame Tom Moyane and his political master, Jacob Zuma.

The Sunday Times investigative team did not hollow out the state and misuse the security cluster as its own armed force. It did not allow the Guptas to capture the state, it did not break state-owned enterprises and it did not install thousands of corrupt and incompetent cronies into the South African government’s every nook and cranny so that it will take years and decades, if ever, to flush them out.

The Sunday Times may have been guilty of shoddy journalism, but all these difficult-to-believe crimes against South Africa were committed by Jacob Zuma, ably assisted by people who belonged to the ANC, the SACP, Cosatu and many others. Lest we forget.

On Tuesday, Cosatu claimed that the reporting by the Sunday Times was “pure economic sabotage”. If the reporting by the paper was “pure economic sabotage”, let’s just remember Cosatu supported Zuma for many years, and only stopped long after “the media” had turned against him. Where was Cosatu when the Sunday Times report was first published — did it know more than the paper did? And if it did, why did it not say something? And why did it back Zuma for so many years, long after it was obvious that he was not governing to the benefit of the country?

And if that is the case, what then does the country say to the media titles which, in 2007, were accused of being “anti-Zuma”.

What about the journalists who warned that the evidence emerging from the Shaik Trial showed that Zuma is corrupt, and that he would be bad/catastrophic for the country?

Instead of Cosatu (and the SACP, and many others) publicly praising those journalists who warned in those days about the incoming president, and publicly apologising for its role in literally creating the Zuma years, rather, there is an incomprehensible call for the break-up of the media system.

Dear Cosatu, that’s just pure hypocrisy.

At the same time, it should be remembered that so far, the only people who have directly suffered as a result of the whole affair at the Sunday Times are wa Afrika and Hofstatter.

There are others, chief among them the editor at the time, Phylicia Oppelt. She has never spoken publicly about this issue, despite at least one invitation to do so so. Combined with that, is the role of advocate Rudolf Mastenbroek. He has been named as someone critical to the story and the way it emerged in publication.

Whether he was or not is not definitely known, but the fact he is the ex-husband of Oppelt and sat on the Kroon Commission is surely enough to demand that he at least provide a full explanation under oath.

It may be easy to say that in fact arguments around blame don’t help us, because they only look backwards. But what is important is whether there was good faith or bad faith.

Should society look to blame ANC MPs who defended Zuma through thick and thin? What if they were only doing it because they knew they needed to remain in their positions so they could remove him at Nasrec? What if they were really doing it because they knew that to fight against him meant ending their own political career? What if they did just because they lost their own agency and were swept up in the tsunami.

Perhaps, as a polling question, someone should ask South Africans what they think of the MPs who twice voted in favour of Zuma becoming president. That answer could be important.

When trying to analyse politics and make decisions about what path to follow next, or who to entrust a vote with, the past matters. Blame matters. If a vote is entrusted to someone who makes a series of mistakes, a voter is absolutely allowed to ask what would change the next time around. This is why it is important to ask the right questions.

It is also important to understand what happened and to call out hypocrisy when it appears. In the case of Cosatu, it is surely hypocrisy to blame journalists for what happened at SARS. The same is surely true of Malema. If the EFF benefited in any way from the wrongdoing at VBS, then the main blame cannot be placed on the shoulders of the Reserve Bank.

Blame, and the blame game, indeed is an integral part of our democracy. But in such turbulent times as these, we have to tread very, very gingerly lest we manage to ruin every achievement we as a nation have made in the last 24 years. We are often reminded, correctly, of why the past is important. Isn’t it just… DM

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