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From the Inside: As in war, we need an ethical convention for political conduct to shield non-combatants

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

To make me more ‘malleable’, a network of Cape Town’s criminal underworld once plotted to frame my children, show me the ‘evidence’ and then demand concessions from me under threat of revealing this publicly. Blackmail, plain and simple.

As I reach the end of my final term as Premier, idealistic young people often approach me to discuss the “pros and cons” of running for public office.

There is no stock answer.

It depends, I tell them, on your values, resilience, stress-resistance, and perseverance. And, of course, your capacity to survive – even thrive – in conflict.

If you think you are ready for life in the proverbial fish-bowl, think again. The question is: Could you survive in a transparent pressure-cooker, when the heat rises well above boiling point, in full public view?

Ask yourself: Will my close relationships survive this? How will I cope when my opponents resort to decimating the lives of my loved ones if this is the most effective way to get at me?

It is hard to imagine the intensity of such situations until you are in them. Only when the heat is at its highest do you realise you cannot release steam from inside a pressure cooker. You need outside help to prevent an explosion.

That relief sometimes comes from unlikely sources. At one crucial point in my career, it came from the late Advocate Pete Mihalik, recently assassinated at point blank range in broad daylight, as he dropped his children off at school in Sea Point.

I only met Pete twice in my life – and only once did we have a proper conversation. This interaction was to prove crucial in protecting my children from my political opponents.

Pete’s phone call came out of the blue, some time during the run-up to the 2010 World Cup, when I was intensely focused on ensuring that we were ready to host a world-class event. I can’t recall ever having met Pete before, and certainly didn’t know that he was allegedly “deeply involved in the gangster underworld of Cape Town”, supposedly acting as a “facilitator between business and gangsters”, according to a recent report in News24.

On the phone, he introduced himself as a lawyer and quickly got to the point: “I need to speak to you. Urgently.”

Go ahead,” I said, inviting him to continue.

No, face to face,” he responded. “And soon. What are you doing tonight?”

I told him I was scheduled to be the guest speaker at an event, but could excuse myself after the speech and come to the address he supplied.

What’s it about?” I asked.

Your children,” he answered, and ended the conversation as abruptly as it had begun.

Any parent knows the lurch in the stomach at moments like that.

It took all the self-control I could muster to complete my diary obligations for the day. I then went home to brief my husband, who accompanied me to the meeting with Pete Mihalik.

After introductory formalities, he told us he had uncovered a plot to frame our children in a drug bust in order to compromise me. A network of Cape Town’s criminal underworld, who had managed to get their “representative”, Badih Chaaban, elected to the Council of the City of Cape Town, was hell-bent on grabbing lucrative contracts in preparation for the World Cup, and control key portions of the city’s real estate into the future.

I had become an obstacle to this plan by insisting on proper procurement processes. So they decided to make me more “malleable”. The idea was to frame my children, show me the “evidence” and then demand concessions from me under threat of revealing this publicly. Blackmail, plain and simple.

As Johann and I left, numb with shock, Pete’s last words were: “Warn your sons. They don’t deserve this.”

We immediately convened a family summit, where I hammered home how potentially serious the situation was. I warned the boys that they were far more vulnerable to extraneous risk than their contemporaries, for the simple reason that I am their mother.

Pete’s children lived with the same risk because he was their father. This is why his murder, witnessed by his children, reverberated particularly intensely with me. They certainly didn’t deserve that either.

Politics, like war, has changed fundamentally over the years. Once upon a time, the only casualties were those directly involved in combat. Today the collateral damage extends far further.

Ironically, the rules of war have evolved more quickly, and more humanely, than the rules of politics, to protect non-combatants.

Today there are binding international agreements for “ethical conduct during war” – an oxymoron if ever there was one, but crucially necessary to save innocent lives.

To summarise the fundamentals:

  • it is unjust to attack non-combatants
  • it is unjust to attack indiscriminately, when non-combatants are in the firing line.

It is time to formulate a similar convention for political conduct.

Leaking a personal sex video of Malusi Gigaba, for example, is the political equivalent of the prohibited warfare tactic of “attacking indiscriminately, when non-combatants are in the firing line.” One shudders to think of the impact this must have had on his family.

It was also, I believe, beyond-the-pale to draw his minor daughter into the row over his imposition of additional travel document requirements for children. A prominent radio personality accused the Minister of implementing this tourism-destroying policy, because he “had an issue” with his ex-wife about an international trip involving their daughter.

The controversy that followed, amidst threats of legal action, inevitably exposed Gigaba’s complex family situation to full public view, and caught “non-combatants” in the cross-fire. As much as it was essential to fight Gigaba’s damaging regulations, the broadside on his family was not OK.

There are, of course, occasions when family members of prominent politicians become combatants themselves, and can expect to be legitimately targeted. An obvious example is Ivanka Trump, a “senior adviser” in her father’s administration. After her father promised to “lock up” Hillary Clinton for sending official correspondence from her private email address, Ivanka cannot expect to avoid an avalanche of criticism for doing the same.

Closer to home we have Duduzane Zuma. The son of former president Jacob Zuma has been charged under the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, for his alleged role in trying to bribe former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas (to the tune of some R600-million) at the Guptas’ Saxonwold compound in October 2015. If even half the allegations swirling around Duduzane are true, he was a leading combatant and not “collateral damage”.

And what about Andile Ramaphosa? Was money “laundered” through one of his business accounts by a corrupt company wishing to make a generous donation to his father’s campaign for the ANC leadership? What was Andile’s role in the transaction? And how did his father, the President, come to believe that the R500,000 involved was a fair fee for “consulting services”, as the President explained in Parliament, only to issue a later correction? There are still unanswered questions here.

Then there is Pravin Gordhan. Those of us who watched his testimony before the Zondo Commission could sense the contained fury behind his calm demeanour when he addressed the EFF’s attempts to target his daughter, Anisha, in order to discredit him.

The EFF’s unsubstantiated allegations were summarised the previous day in a tweet by Floyd Shivambu: “Anisha Gordhan has in the last few weeks went around closing all her bank accounts to hide the hundreds of millions she received as payments from government. It’s too late because we will still reveal all the details.”

Challenging the EFF to give their evidence under oath, Gordhan said: “My daughter has not committed malfeasance of any kind.”

These dangerous and unfounded allegations have been made to harass my family and myself.”

If there are any political objectives that anyone wants to achieve,” he added, “don’t choose vulnerable targets”.

I carefully read the Minister’s statement on his daughter’s professional role in representing the bank she worked for on various company boards, as a non-executive director. It was a coherent and clear explanation. In this case the EFF has some explaining to do. If they do not have facts to back up their allegations, what they did is unforgivable.

Gordhan also faces two Public Protector investigations — one into his role in approving an early retirement package for Ivan Pillay back in 2010; another into whether he disclosed the full extent of his connection with the Guptas. He has been quoted as saying he “smells the rat” of state capture behind these probes.

Institutions like the Public Protector are invaluable to a democracy when they are beholden only to the constitution and the law. But if they are “captured” and abused to settle political scores, or to destroy political opponents, they help destroy the democratic project. If we have learnt one lesson from the “state capture” saga, it is this.

Although the media spotlight has been on how this has played out in the ANC’s internal battles, no-one understands this more than the ANC’s official opposition.

And few more personally than me. My family has been waiting for 18 months for the Public Protector to conduct a “preliminary investigation” into whether I violated the Executive Ethics Code by supporting the procurement of digital devices (tablets) for use in after-school programmes in disadvantaged schools. The reason for the investigation is that my son (who was a mathematics teacher in a state school in Khayelitsha) also used the devices to offer free matric revision programmes at impoverished schools during the October holidays of 2014.

The Public Protector has not yet finalised her preliminary investigation, so as much as I would like to, I cannot write on this matter in further detail.

Suffice it to say that the complaint that was laid by ANC MPL, Cameron Dugmore, who has ambitions of becoming ANC Provincial Chairman and Premier candidate, and has enthusiastically picked up where the notorious Marius Fransman and Ebrahim Rasool left off in their relentless campaigns to destroy me politically.

Politicians don’t cry. This comes with the territory. But when dedicated and committed members of one’s family become “collateral damage” in the political cross-fire, I echo Gordhan’s sentiment: This is unacceptable.

If we want people of integrity to run for public office (which I presume we still do) it is essential to deal with this increasingly vicious aspect of public life, magnified many fold by the use of social media.

It is time for an explicit Geneva-type convention among political parties to agree on fair rules of combat, which at the very least acknowledge that

  • It is unjust to attack non-combatants.
  • It is unjust to attack indiscriminately, when non-combatants are in the firing line.

We also need to build this into our parliamentary rules and conventions. If we do not, we will find that the only people attracted to public office are those who really don’t care how many dead bodies they leave in their wake, as long as they can enrich themselves. DM


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