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A troubled week for the Blue House

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Since becoming a party of governance, the slogan for the Democratic Alliance has been “because we’re better than the other one”. As it turns out, no they’re not. The DA’s leaders are given to bouts of populism and its members in power are also given to creativity with the rules that govern how a municipality’s money ought to be spent.

If you examine Democratic Alliance policy, you will find that there isn’t much difference between it and the ANC when it comes to what it wants to fix and how it plans to do it. Both parties acknowledge that the levels of poverty and inequality prevalent in the country are unsustainable, and both propose government-driven mechanisms to fix that.

Only recently, the DA proposed an expansion to the Compensation Fund to provide for domestic workers. Given the party’s tone on labour and big government, the move did come as a bit of a surprise. (An indication perhaps that those of a different view to the party leaders are starting to speak up?)

The DA has realised that it can’t really make a clear distinction between itself and the ANC based on policy – though the party does decry what it calls the ANC’s policy of cadre deployment – which would explain the “we’re better” stance.

The party claims it can do governance better. The way DA leader Helen Zille has attacked Jacob Zuma, Julius Malema and Gwede Mantashe for their apparent failings of leadership suggest that she holds herself up to the highest of standards in that regard.

Well, if you are pinning your hopes of ruling the country someday on convincing the electorate that you can do the same things as the ruling party in a more principled way, then you need to make damn sure that your public image is purer than the driven snow.

I don’t think there can be doubt that this past week has splashed some mud on the DA’s image (how pure it was before that is debatable).

The Public Protector Thuli Madonsela released a report on the DA’s flagship Midvaal municipality, which found evidence of maladministration and irregularities. Madonsela’s report did not make any pronouncements on corruption, which the Special Investigating Unit is still looking into.

The findings were most damning about DA Midvaal constituency chairman Andrew Odendaal, whose law firm has been advising the council’s on legal matters since 1979. The council was found by Madonsela to have failed to promote the constitutional obligation of equity in public procurement processes because the firm, whose contract with the municipality was constantly renewed, gained “an unfair advantage over other service providers by having access to information and influence over the procurement instruments”.

Midvaal mayor Timothy Nast immediately disputed some of Madonsela’s findings, but also issued a disclaimer of sorts. “No government is perfect. Good governments acknowledge this and strive towards the highest standards of financial management and service delivery,” said he.

The sort of wrongdoing displayed by the Midvaal DA is miniscule compared to some flops by the ruling party, but it still lessens the impacts of the opposition’s future scoldings. It will not be below the ANC to retort: sort out your own house before commenting on ours. 

What should be causing the DA more alarm is Zille’s newfound love for populist nonsense.

She was widely quoted in the press as saying that men who are HIV positive, have multiple sexual partners and refuse to wear condoms should be prosecuted for attempted murder.

I fully expected Zille to get onto Twitter and denounce the reports as either misquotes or outright lies. She didn’t. Instead, she got onto her BlackBerry and huffily defended her stance, in a tone that didn’t suggest clarity of thought or tranquillity of emotion. Hell, I thought someone hacked into her Twitter account.

If we stop to consider what Zille is suggesting for even five minutes, and we leave aside the singling out of men for criticism, it becomes apparent that it is so fantastically absurd and unlawful that she can’t possibly think that it could gain much legal traction.

Take the charge of attempted murder, for example. My limited reading of law told me that such a charge can only stick if the prosecution can prove intent. How would one go about proving that a man who is HIV positive and refuses to wear a condom intends to kill his sexual partners? These men may be reckless and stupid, but they are not murderers. 

Pierre de Vos pointed out on his blog that even a charge of culpable homicide (which is possibly what Zille meant when she said attempted murder) would not stick, except under extraordinary circumstances.

“If somebody negligently transmits HIV to another and that person actually dies, the person could theoretically be charged with culpable homicide, but proving the causal link between the sexual act and the death of the person as well as the negligence on the part of the accused would be almost impossible to do,” de Vos wrote.

Zille’s spotty knowledge of the law aside, I still believe she couldn’t possibly have seriously meant to pursue this idea to the end where it is passed into law.

Which makes it a classic populist statement. It probably resonates with a lot of South Africans, who (if the surveys are to be believed) have a lot of difficulty with sex. The DA’s conservative cabal must have nodded with approval when they heard the reports.

I’m not so much insulted by Zille’s tactless hatchet job on the image of HIV-positive people, so much as I am by the idea that she thinks she can regulate what consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms. The audacity.

Isn’t it nice to know that even the Blue House politicians share so many delightful similarities to others of their kind around the world?

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