Minister Jeff Radebe on Sunday blamed “name-dropping” for the Gupta corruption scandal and said the government wanted name-dropping to be classified as a form of gross misconduct – presumably for members of the civil service. But for Radebe to blame officials for a culture of name-dropping and to rail against such a culture, is a bit like a habitual drunk blaming a culture of wine making and railing against liquor stores to excuse the fact that he killed a child while driving under the influence of liquor.
Several years ago I was involved in an argument with the principal of a high school in Polokwane. The principal had endorsed unfair discrimination against gay and lesbian learners during a school assembly (comparing homosexuality to Satanism) and I was trying to get the principal to repent and to respect the existing law. The principal was evidently an old style beneficiary of Broederbond-style affirmative action gone wrong and was clearly not the sharpest tool in the shed. He refused to acknowledge the existence of the sections of various Acts prohibiting his school from unfairly discriminating against gay and lesbian learners, choosing to repeat his own narrow-minded, racist and homophobic views as justification for his actions.
As it dawned on me that the principal lacked the basic intelligence and academic literacy required to engage in a logical and coherent debate, I am ashamed to admit I finally reverted to name-dropping. Pretending to be good friends with the then-Minister of Education, I threatened to report him to my good friend, the minister, if he did not relent.
But even this intellectually challenged man did not fall for my bluff. He knew as well as I did that I had no influence with the Minister of Education. I could drop her name a million times until her name shattered into a million bright little pieces at my feet – he would be safe in ignoring my increasingly shrill demands and threats. He knew I had no influence or power over the minister and hence that the name-dropping was nothing but an empty gesture to try to get him to do what his reactionary politics prevented him from doing.
Now, of course, the situation would have been different if I was widely known to be a friend and financial benefactor of the minister. The principal would probably have quaked in his boots if it was widely known that I were the minister’s financial benefactor and bankrolling the minister and her family. He would have jumped and done as I asked if he had thought that the minister would do anything I told her to do because I had bribed the minister. In those circumstances, not even a person as stupid as that principal would have dared to ignore my complaints. He would have been far too scared of losing his job or being transferred to Putsonderwater High School.
But because the principal correctly suspected that I would never pay bribes to a politician, because we both (probably correctly) assumed that the Minister of Education would never have taken bribes from me or anyone else, and because it was therefore highly unlikely that I had the Minister of Education in my pocket to do as I ordered her to do, that principal had no problem in ignoring my pathetic attempt at name-dropping.
The admission by Minister Radebe that “names were dropped”, is therefore telling. Using the passive voice – a classic technique of evasion – Minister Radebe on Sunday said that the Minister of Defence, the Minister of Transport and President Jacob Zuma’s names were dropped (by whom we are not told) to officials to get them to break the law.
Even if we believe Minister Radebe when he claims that no minister, nor the president, gave direct instructions to any of the officials who orchestrated this abuse of state power, the very appeal to “name-dropping” as a justification for exculpating the politicians, suggest that corruption is at the heart of this scandal. For some reason – which might or might not be linked to activities that are prohibited by the Prevention and Combatting of Corrupt Activities Act – all the officials miraculously believed that when the Gupta’s drop the president’s name, they better jump – after asking the Gupta’s how high they were required to jump.
The most telling and shameful aspect of the Guptagate is that – even on the version of events dished up to us by the likes of Minister Radebe – the officials all believed that they had to follow the Gupta’s request or face the consequences from the president and the ministers whose names were dropped. On Radebe’s own version, then, senior officials believed that the president and his ministers were corrupt and willing to break the law and endanger South Africa’s security. On this version officials wilfully broke the law and endangered South Africa’s national security because they thought their jobs depended on fulfilling the corrupt and unlawful wishes of the President and his Ministers.
This is an extraordinary admission to make and I am not sure the minister and his colleagues have given sufficient thought to what they are admitting to. They are, in effect, telling us that the culture of corruption and bribery around the president and the government he leads is so deeply entrenched that – without even having to take instructions from the president or one of his ministers and regardless of what the actual situation might be – senior officials would break the law and endanger national security to please the Guptas, because they believed the Guptas had bribed President Zuma and could instruct him what to do.
What is equally astonishing is that Minister Radebe and his colleagues have failed to ask the obvious question that flows from this unintended admission of government entanglement with corruption: why would the officials believe that the name-dropping by the Guptas (or their underlings) of President Zuma’s name was anything but the empty threats made by any other citizen? After all, those officials would have been unimpressed if any of us ordinary citizens, who (unlike the Guptas) had not been paying off the bond on the house of one of the president’s wives and had not co-opted the president’s son as a business partner, had dropped President Zuma’s name in order to get those officials to break the law. I could drop President Zuma’s name a million times, and I would still not get a single official to allow me to land a civilian plane at Waterkloof Air Force base.
When Radebe claims that the scandal shows that name-dropping in the public service had to be classified as a form of gross misconduct, he is either demonstrating a tenuous grip on logic, or he is wilfully trying to mislead the public. Officials do not drop names. People like the Guptas drop names. They drop names because they have paid their dues and know that the officials will feel pressured by the name-dropping. They drop names because they have names in their pockets to drop. People who drop names have those names in their pockets because they are willing to pay for the privilege.
It is not the officials who are at fault. It is the business people who buy the influence of powerful politicians with offers of financial and other assistance (and the powerful politicians who allow this to happen), who are at fault. And there is no need for new legislation to deal with this problem. This kind of buying of influence that makes name-dropping effective is all outlawed by the Prevention and Combatting of Corrupt Activities Act. This is, not so incidentally, the very Act under which President Jacob Zuma was going to be prosecuted before charges against him were mysteriously dropped. (I guess President Zuma must have dropped his own name to get the National Prosecuting Authority conveniently to make those charges go away.)
So, dear reader, when you hear a politician bemoaning the culture of name-dropping, ask that politician whether he or she could take a lie detector test to promise that he or she had never received any financial or other benefit from any one of those rich businessmen and -women who so love to drop the names of our politicians. Then watch as that politician squirms to avoid answering your question. DM
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Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon