Opinionista Ryland Fisher 12 August 2013

When pigs fly

When politicians get themselves in hot water, they are most fiercely protected by their own. Changing this behaviour between comrades is as easy as swine taking flight.

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When we were young, impressionable political activists in the early 1980s, we had a couple of incidents where the character of certain senior comrades was being questioned. I remember campaigning not once, but twice in support of a senior comrade who had been found sleeping around, despite the fact that he was married.

We were told then this was part of an elaborate campaign by the Apartheid regime to discredit the leaders of the liberation movement. The comrade’s contribution, we were made to believe, was much more important than the allegations against him.

I realised then, despite my youthful innocence, that politics often has very little to do with what is right or wrong. It also often has very little to do with policies, programmes of action, vision, mission, objectives and other supposedly noble things.

More often than not, politics is about personalities.

We could not afford for the comrade who should have been disgraced, to be disgraced because of the impact it would have on the struggle, we were told. So, in the name of the struggle, we sometimes tolerated errant behaviour and blamed everything on the despicable Apartheid regime.

As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

As someone who has been around the block more than a few times since those days of misplaced innocence, I have seen how history repeats itself again and again.

Comrades (and I use the term loosely) will attack you depending on which political organisation you support, or even which faction within that organisation. And they will defend those who they believe they are close to, even if the person is difficult to defend.

Or, at the very least, they will defend you if there is any possibility that you could be useful in terms of their own political agenda. For instance, if you happen to have substantial support within the organisation.

A few recent incidents have convinced me that nobody learns anything from history.

The reaction around the sexual indiscretions of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi – both positive and negative – is an indication of just how many people take political positions first, and then look for ways of justifying their positions after.

I understand that Vavi is an obvious target for certain people who feel uncomfortable about some of his pronouncements, but that does not mean that, in the eyes of his supporters, he should be able to do no wrong. And when he does admit to making a mistake, he should not be let off with a simple apology.

There were some people who appeared to rejoice when the rape allegation against Vavi was withdrawn, but surely that is not the point. The point is that, at the very least, he abused his position of authority to secure employment for someone in a most inappropriate manner, and engaged in sexual activity in the work place.

Surely, if Vavi was the kind of leader he professes to be, he would have stepped aside until such time as an internal investigation could be completed into what are perceived to be irregularities in his behaviour.

The other incident involves former communications minister Dina Pule.

Pule has been huffing and puffing about her innocence and it will be interesting to see if, now that she has been found guilty of misleading Parliament, whether she will step down willingly. Surely it would be the honourable thing to do. But my guess is that Pule will hang in there as long as possible in the hope that those with power over these things will realise that she is still politically valuable.

The recent action by finance minister Pravin Gordhan to let SA Revenue Services commissioner Oupa Magashule go after an internal hearing found him guilty of inappropriate behaviour should be an example to everyone in government. The fact that Magashule went without much of a fight should also be applauded. (I never thought we would applaud something so obvious.)

Unfortunately, Gordhan’s actions will probably be the exception rather than the rule.

Too often politicians still hide behind what they can offer in terms of political patronage, even when they are disgraced. They will hold on to their positions for as long as possible, even when all the evidence points against them.

Julius Malema is one of those who benefited from this blind loyalty within the ANC, until he overstepped the mark for the umpteenth time and the ANC had no choice but to let him go. Malema’s biggest mistake was to believe his own propaganda and to overestimate his importance in the ANC. He became more of a liability than an asset to those with power.

Those in favour of accused politicians often frame the accusations against them as plots concocted by people who are opposed to them. It becomes a defence mechanism to blame your troubles on your political opponents.

There are many other examples where politicians have not known when to come or go, and there will no doubt be many more in future.

Maybe one day we will reach a point where politicians will no longer put their interests above those of the people they are supposed to represent. Of course, that will be the day when pigs fly. DM


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