To infinity and beyond
22 March 2018 21:40 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ian von Memerty

Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely. Always.

  • Ian von Memerty
    Ian von Memerty

    Ian von Memerty is a Zimbabwean-born South African entertainer, actor, singer, musician, writer, director and television presenter. See his full biography here.

It is a truism, a fact, and an historical reality that human nature is corrupted when holding positions of power for any length of time. So as we spin around trying to work out how Jay-Z, Gweezee, and the ANC lost the moral plot, let’s remind ourselves that they are human. And no human being, not one of us, can be trusted with power for any length of time.

Admittedly there are people who have a natural talent for corruption – Hitler in Germany, Ceaușescu in Romania, Amin in Uganda, Hlaudi in Auckland Park. These men seem to come genetically coded, “I am right, everyone else is wrong, and what I want is right. And however I get it is right!”

But innate corruption and innate morality are the two rare extremes of human nature; 99% of us are somewhere in the middle. (For the pedantic this is not an actual statistic, it is just the most appropriate generalisation for the human condition.) With so much venting it now seems that corruption is The Great South African Problem. And if we consider apartheid with its innate and explicit corruption and the ANC’s fall from grace, it is a real problem. But it is not ours alone.

Let us look at that pillar of Western Democracy – Great Britain. How differently would we look back at Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair had they been required to resign after serving 10 years as Prime Minister? Both of those transformative leaders left office discredited, in part because they had been corrupted by the power they held on to for too long, which meant that their judgement had been damaged and distorted.

When you are the most powerful person in the room, it is inevitable that after a time you believe that what you think is right. Every day, you have the final say on any important topic or decision. Eventually you have to believe that you are indispensible, irreplaceable and right. Why? Because you just are!

Every time I am tempted to curse the president for his latest transgression against democracy, dignity or decency, I am reminded of how many lives he helped to save by being instrumental in the peace negotiations that ended the mutual IFP and ANC slaughter in KwaZulu-Natal before the 1994 elections. I doubt if one journalist, or any combination of commentators like myself who easily spout opinions and condemnation, have done as much to save actual lives as JZ has. (Side note – after reminding myself of this I feel so much better, that I am able to then curse him with great smugness and sanctimoniousness.) BUT – that does not make him immune to the corrosive destruction of power.

And before we get all the “a white man maligning a black man”; and on the opposite side “you see, all blacks are corrupt”, let’s just balance it with white corruption. At home, look at the most obvious example, Hansie Cronje – this golden boy, talented, religious, who succumbed to the siren call of the entitlement that power brings. Let’s look at the bankers on Wall Street, who wiped out the savings, the jobs and the homes of millions of people around the globe, who have not been prosecuted, not served prison sentences, and ‘not paid back the money.

If we look northwards to the dictator with his death grip on Zimbabwe, how differently would he be judged had he obeyed the constitution and stepped down after his second seven year term in 1994? Despite the atrocities in Matabeleland (which had not really come to light), Zimbabwe was flourishing, business was booming, education was improving magnificently, infrastructure was being maintained and developed, elections were regular in all senses of the word. But since 1994, as Mugabe’s sense of megalomaniac omnipotence has grown, so he has increasingly harmed and hurt more and more of his people.

Had he stepped down in 1994, he would be hailed today as one of the greatest African statesmen ever – up there with Mandela. And just to underscore this is not an “African” problem, I have one word to say – Berlusconi, the Italian mogul who not only soundly screwed Italy over, but also as many immigrant prostitutes as possible.

One of the reasons that Mandela will go down in history as an inspiring leader who led his divided nation towards unity and reconciliation is because he stepped down after five years of brilliant statesmanship. Possibly he knew that even he was not strong enough to resist the tentacles of power that reach inside and smother some vital part of our humanity.

So what insight does that give us about South Africa now? Well, we need to remember that organisations are as susceptible to deformation as individuals. If they do not actively, vigorously and relentlessly hold each other accountable, and measure themselves by the principles that first inspired their cohesion – then as more and more individuals lose their moral compass so the whole organisation spins off axis.

And that is what we see in the ANC today. Since 1990, they have been the largest and most powerful party in the country. For 22 years the reins and the purse strings of South Africa have been theirs to do with what they will. And in the beginning, before the rotten apples outnumbered the healthy ones, they did a remarkable job. But inevitably, they have lost their way, blinded by the headlights of hubris and distorted reality.

It is worth asking ourselves the question, why are our current golden lights so incorruptible? If Pravin Ghordan had not recently served his time in the political wilderness, and if Thuli Madonsela was not constrained by the limitations of her job and the vigour of the opposition against her, would these two idols of incorruptible independence have the same principled resolution that they now show? Probably not. Because power corrupts.

Personally, I know that when I directed shows (which I now try to do less and less) an inevitable sense of “self-righteousness and infallibility” would grow, alongside a paradoxical paranoia and self-doubt. (Witness the ANC’s illogical and dangerous claims against the IEC since August.) The decision-maker inevitably starts to believe their decisions are right and everyone else just doesn’t “get it”, unless they are constantly pinned down by a set of laws, principles and partners who will keep them “psychologically whole”.

And just in case you think this is yet another anti ANC rant, let’s look at the DA, whose moral platform rests on the pillars of no corruption and accountability. In Cape Town, this year the leader of the “poo protests”, Loyiso Nkhola, defected to the DA, bringing 500 ANC members with him. He then campaigned for the DA, and after the local elections was given a R700,000 a year job, as an “executive support officer”, by Mayor Patricia de Lille, who had previously (and correctly) labelled him a thug, when he was an ANCYL member.

This is a man who was sentenced to 36 months in jail (suspended) for breaking the law, who was criticised by everyone, including the ANC, for the cowardly and disgusting act of depositing shit on the streets for poor South African women to clean up, to score some bullshit political points, before driving off in the comfort of a BMW.

Now it may be that he had truly learnt that what he was doing was repellent, selfish and criminal; but if so he needed to tell us, in detail and with no pettifogging. And it may be that of all the people in Cape Town he was the best qualified person for the job he got. But if so the DA and the mayor needed to tell us why. Which is why the announcement that after this week’s Fed-ex meeting of the DA, Mmusi Maimane has instructed that Nkhola’s contract is not to be renewed in December, is so heartening.

Because by doing that he has proved that the DA is not (yet) acting on the assumption that they have the right to make a decision that is morally questionable, without explanation – which is what they daily accuse the ANC of doing.

Because that is how the rot sets in. I doubt very much whether Nkhola would have received a mayoral position in the first coalition government in CT in 2006. But it is 10 years on, and the DA has just won a bigger majority in Cape Town (deservedly, considering their track record of delivery and clean government).

Whether a member of the DA or the ANC or the EFF, politicians, like all of us, need to acknowledge that they are inherently corruptible. We all are. Why? Because we are human. If we don’t set up systems to root out corruption in ourselves, and in our own organisations, then we have no right to point our fingers at others who have simply travelled a little further down the same road.

We humans can’t help ourselves, and so we have to have a set of rules to stop ourselves. It is the only principled thing to do. It is the only logical thing to do. Because when you are in power, if no one is policing you – you will go wrong. It is inevitable. DM

  • Ian von Memerty
    Ian von Memerty

    Ian von Memerty is a Zimbabwean-born South African entertainer, actor, singer, musician, writer, director and television presenter. See his full biography here.

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