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Collapse of ethics in public life: how do we rebuild?

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Collapse of ethics in public life: how do we rebuild?

Photo by Ivor Markman
Professor Raymond Suttner

15th May 2017

By: Raymond Suttner

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Many writers have remarked on the qualities possessed by Brian Molefe, that he had gained experience in the Treasury and other institutions or organisations that would have fitted him for a range of high ranking jobs, nationally and internationally. He chose instead to put his skills at the service of the Guptas and in fact prostrate himself at their feet and that of Jacob Zuma and do whatever they required, much of this being of doubtful legality. 

In saying that Molefe has various qualities this is not to accept all the evaluations of what Molefe achieved for there are questions around whether or not his time at ESKOM was a success, as documented in Carol Paton’s 2016 analysis.

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What is important to recognise is that the readiness of Brian Molefe to play fast and loose with legality is not at all exceptional in these times, for there are very many people who have traded their integrity in exchange for financial gain or some or other position acquired through serving powerful individuals. In some ways more shocking, there are many who were once very brave who have exchanged their sense of personal pride and dignity in order to hold one or other position. They have been prepared to defend Jacob Zuma over a range of issues where he was clearly misusing his office and taxpayers funds –some deploying great ingenuity to make a case, for what would later be found to be demonstrably false and in conflict with the constitution.

In the political context in which we presently exist speaking of integrity is not simply whether or not someone speaks the truth or can be trusted with funds, whether he or she will steal or falsify the books of a branch or region of an organisation in order to siphon off funds for private use. That is an element of what we identify as a lack of integrity. But what is specific to this period and by no means peculiar to South Africa is that the route to this dishonesty and acts that constitute a breach of trust happen within a context that embodies a patron-client relationship.

For patronage to emerge there must be individuals who hope to acquire the power (and need supporters) or do command the power to allocate positions or resources to others in exchange for their loyalty or support. That means that such potentially or already powerful individuals must be located or plan to be placed in a position to access resources. These may be resources of an organisation or Foundations or Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), the state, a State owned enterprise (SOE), a private company etc etc. 

This is not a new phenomenon. It was also the case in exile when some individuals could secure better training or schooling or university opportunities than others, by virtue of their proximity to certain leaders. There were a range of other situations where some individuals or networks were placed in a way that enabled them to derive benefits that others did not receive or even do so at the expense of such individuals. The scale of these benefits was obviously of a much lower level than today though it was – perhaps – a form of tutelage for what we now see.

It was also the case, inside the country during the 1980s when some individuals accessed funds locally or from overseas and through these funds were able to secure the loyalty of other individuals. These individuals were often encouraged to form organisations with a particular orientation and those who possessed funds were able to determine whether or not organisations rose or fell, whether they had funding for hiring venues or paying transportation or could supply the food needed for delegates at one or other meeting or to print T shirts and influenced various other factors that determined whether or not an organisation survived on a sustainable basis.

The Thabo Mbeki presidency was characterised by patronage, though it generally did not converge with criminality or illegality to anything like the extent that is found today. It played itself out in appointments as well as the way some people were “in the know” of what the president wanted and others were not, those within the circle of influence being better prepared for or being part of decisions that were made.

At the time of the dismissal of Zuma as Deputy State President in 2005, leading to an upsurge of support for Zuma (culminating in his election victory at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference), some individuals who had linked their future with Thabo Mbeki decided either to continue with that relationship and in most cases these people lost or resigned from positions of power. Alternatively, there were many who saw the writing on the wall for Mbeki and decided to throw their lot in with the rising Jacob Zuma. Many of these individuals had appeared to be very close to Mbeki but they recognised that they could no longer benefit from that relationship and chose their own more or less lucrative survival.

Some others, like the leadership of the SACP and COSATU also disagreed with features of the Mbeki period, notably the Growth Economic and Redistribution macroeconomic policy (GEAR), referred to as the “1996 class project” and claimed to support the rise of Zuma on an ideological basis, as a way of remedying this conservative macroeconomic policy. 

In contrast to Mbeki, SACP and COSATU leaders depicted Zuma as a person who was sympathetic to the poor and less secretive than they depicted Mbeki as being.

Many of these individuals knew very well that the basis on which they were advancing the candidacy of Zuma was false; that Zuma had withdrawn from the SACP in 1990, when -unlike in the period of exile- being in the leadership of the Communist Party was no longer prestigious or advantageous. There was no consistent pro-working class or people-centred orientation attaching to Zuma. In fact, until shortly before his dismissal by Mbeki their political and socio-economic orientations had been more or less similar. One of Zuma’s biographers Jeremy Gordin refers to Zuma and Mbeki being so close in their thinking that they were more or less “joined at the hip; they operated as a team and had for a long time”. (Zuma: a biography, 2008, p 56).

The SACP knew this better than most.  What they did was use their then considerable ideological and moral powers to project Zuma as being what they knew he was not; so eager were they to get rid of Mbeki. This is what is known as fraudulent misrepresentation in the law of contract, that you sell a product on the basis of qualities that you know it does not possess.

It may also have been that some of the SACP and COSATU leaders understood the inauguration of a Zuma period as bringing benefits for themselves and indeed SACP and COSATU leaders have become ministers and deputy ministers in this period.

In visiting Zuma on us, these leaders endorsed or were complicit in Zuma’s hyper patriarchal and aggressive conduct in his rape trial and the militarism associated with his rule – the singing of Umshini Wam, a song of war as his “trademark song”, endorsing his ethnic chauvinism (100% Zulu) and numerous other features that ran counter to the very basis for forming the ANC (that is, eschewing “tribalism”) and in the case of the SACP, gender policies that had become an important part of its identity under Chris Hani.

The SACP leadership now calls for the resignation of Zuma and says it was wrong in supporting him in 2007. But it is not clear that it has articulated all the reasons why it was wrong –not simply that he has turned out to be corrupt. Unless there is full awareness of the violent, hyperpatriarchal and dishonest character of this period we do not learn all the lessons.

Rebuilding the ethical qualities of South African public life will take time. It is both an intellectual question, deciding what is and is not ethical and a psychological one, deciding whether or not one will act out what we understand to be correct. We have to recognise and choose whether or not to act ethically. Let us hope that likeminded people can drive a process whereby ethical conduct is revived as a desirable and necessary basis for conducting our social and political life. It may be that if the proposed “national dialogues” take off and involve people from all sections of our society, in a meaningful way, that they can play a role.


Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  is prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison will be reissued with a new introduction covering his more recent “life outside the ANC” and will be published by Jacana Media late in May. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

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