Defend Truth


Real democracy deserves honourable politicians


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

Temptation is strong – more by daily evidence than grammatical considerations – to place the word “real” in inverted commas in the headline. Tempted, because it is the ignoble and dishonourable manner in which our ruling party leaders and appointed officials behave in public that begs the question of whether ours is not “democracy” – more sham than genuine political state.

South Africans who caught British Prime Minister David Cameron’s stellar performance in the House of Commons this week were buoyed by the energetic display of democracy in action. For two-and-a-half hours this week, Cameron took a reported 136 questions from MPs with astounding composure. If he felt he was under the cosh he certainly did not show it. With impressive impassivity, he even cracked a few jokes, cautiously combing his way through the worst the Labour party could throw at him.

With a wistful sigh and a faraway look in their eyes, South Africans longed for a day when we may witness our own president, or ever likelier, his successor, dodge expertly articulated projectiles one afternoon every week. It would certainly make for great television. In our daydreams it could even dramatically rescue the failing SABC from its financial quagmire by sending millions of viewers the public broadcaster’s way. But real life, of course, falls far short of the conjuring of our dreams. It’s just not like us to ask the hard questions and actually demand answers.

Eusebius McKaiser revealed last week that minister Jeff Radebe felt McKaiser had been “disrespectful” in the manner he had probed the minister during an interview on the SABC’s show, “Interface”.  You see, in South Africa we sometimes mistake sycophancy for respect.  The public good is not promoted by the deification of leaders. They are human. Yes, they are fallible. And yes, a slip up, now and then ought to be forgiven, but mistakes that virulently oppose the  public’s interests are not mere mistakes. A mistake is a misnomer for actions that impede the hard-won freedoms of South Africans. A mistake is a misnomer for the misuse of public funds. It is a crime.

Over the seas and in the steely greyness of Blighty, the odds on Cameron resigning were at one point this week shortened to 5-1. And though the bookies feel there is now only a negligible chance the PM will bow out, Cameron’s judgement on hiring disgraced ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson  and his ties to the upper echelons of the workings of the British division of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire continue to be called into question. Cameron may well have saved his rear from an being booted out of 10 Downing Street, but the widespread calls for his resignation and with it the widespread expectation that he would almost surely have to resign is telling of a political culture vastly different from our own. It is a culture of accountability, a culture that espouses political mortality.

The News of the World phone-hacking scandal has already claimed Britain’s top cops. Metropolitan Police chief Sir Paul Stephenson and London’s top counter-terrorism policeman, John Yates, both resigned after it was alleged senior police officers were too cosy with the tabloid’s bosses and the more junior among them were selling tips to its journalists. Stephenson took the fall mainly for agreeing to employ a former deputy editor of the News of the World, Neil Wallis as an advisor to the Met. Intriguingly, Wallis advised the Met commissioner and assistant commissioner at a time when Scotland Yard rejected calls for the reopening of a criminal investigation into the interception of voicemails. With every sensational revelation in the ongoing saga, the emerging image is of a police force and government riddled with conflicts of interest and plural loyalties. 

It is an image strikingly similar to public institutions at home.

Where we differ, of course, is that the British police officials as well as executives at News International have shown the good sense to bow out, knowing their game was up. In South Africa not just the police commissioner, but ministers in the government with heinous allegations of corruption and maladministration hanging over their heads have not budged from their seats. It is a stubbornness that better suits Middle Eastern dictators staring down a revolution.

Accountability to the electorate is a fantastic concept, but a failure to meet its execution renders democracy itself a farce.  As well as stubbornness, it is a well-founded sense of complacency that guides public officials in South Africa. Over and over again public officials are allowed to abuse public funds and the public good with sham impunity. The man who is now president of the country once faced charges of corruption and rape, and yet managed to run for office. Of course, the corruption charges were dropped, he was acquitted on the charge of rape and there is no inference that it should have been otherwise, but leaders, be they Cameron, Cele or Zuma, ought to have a better understanding of higher standards by which their actions, their acquaintances, their friendships and the workings of their institutions should be judged.

City Press on Sunday implored Zuma to root out the rot in the country’s administration. “Fire them,” it urged. “The credibility of our public institutions is at risk,”. Public works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde has been found by the Public Protector not only to have cost the state hundreds of millions of rands in wasteful expenditure, but displayed a haughty indifference to investigations against her department, refusing to co-operate with the Public Protector. Then there’s police chief General Bheki Cele.  He has been found now to have acted unlawfully twice. First he was  found guilty of unlawful and irregular behaviour during negotiations to lease businessman Roux Shabangu’s Middestad building in Pretoria. And the next report from the Public Protector found Cele guilty of a string of offences – a failure to ensure proper procurement processes were followed and then his personal involvement in identifying property tycoon Roux Shabangu’s Transnet building in Durban as suitable space for the police.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said she was not going to tell Zuma what to do with her report that stopped short of incriminating Cele and co. She hoped the venerable president would do the “right thing” to those implicated prompting trade union federation Cosatu to ask “why ministers accused of serious offences do not follow their conscience(s), and the example of those in many other countries, and resign while the charges are investigated, rather than sit and wait until they are dismissed?” Fancy that, trade unions calling for the dismissal of government workers.

And yet, instead of following the example of his counterpart in the Met and respectfully stepping down, Cele might be shipped off as an ambassador to Japan.

We demand of our leaders not that they be more British – that would denote a severe lack of ambition. Lest we forget, Tony Blair pretty much survived sexing up intelligence to go to war in Iraq. Of course, Blair displayed terrific composure during his own lengthy question-and-answer sessions, but his is hardly a moral standard to which to aspire. Accountability in South Africa must translate to more than theatrics. We demand our leaders genuinely take responsibility for their actions and put the country first. DM


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