The André de Ruyter parliamentary hearing on 26 April 2023 into Eskom corruption was one of our greatest triumphs. The standard knee-jerk reaction is that it was a failure because nothing came of it. We still do not know which ministers, senior officials, contractors or Eskom staff were or are corrupt. Members of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) were visibly exasperated by their questions not being answered.
However, what we witnessed last week was democracy in action; a beacon of our most cherished values: freedom of expression, right to silence, due process, cross-examination, transparency, accountability, law enforcement and criminal investigation at the highest level, combined with political dignity and efficacy, of which all compatriots should be proud.
There was no obvious politicking, no snide put-downs, and no open political animosity. As far as is possible in politics, they acted as a cohesive team playing for a clean and just government victory. Well done to Scopa.
It is easy during Eskom blackouts, a lack of high-level prosecutions and arrests, misappropriation of enough money to house half of the homeless, absent accountability and transparency, cover-ups and more, to see the gloom and doom of the overwhelming dark cloud without noticing the silver lining. It is there for all to see, bright and shimmering, providing light where there is Eskom darkness. It is far more important than the darkness.
There are few countries where such corruption would not be covered-up. We are now one of them.
Let us start with our politicians from all parties. They were dignified, informed and forceful. All members balanced determination and yet restraint as well as urgency, yet patience. Whilst demanding answers, they are committed to getting them properly.
The national spotlight was on the testimony of André de Ruyter, former Eskom CEO. The nation has been waiting for him to expose those he says are guilty. None of us know yet, despite strident assertions to the contrary in mainstream, alternative and social media. Rule of law values require us to assume innocence until guilt is proven, including, or especially, for his targets. Even when his suspects are disclosed by him or the crime prevention establishment, the right thing to do in our beloved country is to presume innocence.
There was so much to celebrate that distress is inexcusable. De Ruyter’s right to silence on what might compromise him was respected. His right to report his allegations to the authorities was respected. Time for them to investigate, charge and arrest suspects was presumed.
De Ruyter relied on his legal advice, which included that he should not make allegations (as if sub judice) against people under investigation, and not impugn or defame them prematurely. However much this frustrated us, it was right.
He has been criticised for using private funds for investigations. That criticism is especially bizarre since his reluctance to misallocate public funds should be considered heroic. What he was free to explain in great detail were all the ways in which he reported malfeasance to requisite organs of state. This is pro-South Africa, not De Ruyter or any other individual.
The constitutional rule of law and constitutional separation of powers’ imperative has been tragically eroded. With rare exceptions, only the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government should legislate, execute or adjudicate respectively. We increasingly see so much of all three functions being performed by all three branches that it is easy to forget this core principle of free societies.
It is especially easy for Scopa to think of itself as being mandated to perform all three functions. We were blessed to see them concentrating on their core function. They are neither quasi-court nor legislature.
Their job, of which they are acquitting themselves admirably, is to investigate financial irregularities and hand the findings to law enforcement agencies, who, in turn, provide the judiciary with what it needs to acquit or convict suspects hitherto presumed innocent.
There is and will increasingly be much misplaced anguishing about the private sector side of Eskom corruption. The common denominator in bribery and corruption is government. Both occur within the private sector, but so rarely that a “corrupt country” is rightly presumed one with a corrupt government. Private enterprise has effective checks and balances because firms without them fail.
What we as a nation are witnessing is the application of essential checks and balances in government to redress catastrophic government failure. We have seen opportunities to penalise corruption fly by with impunity.
This has the promise of heralding a new era, for which it needs continued rigorous adherence to core values with enthusiastic public endorsement. BM/DM