In life the opposite of shame is shamelessness. In public life the antonym of shame is impunity. In both cases, it means you act unbound by the norms of decency, accountability, moral probity and ethics. Consequences for wrongful acts are for dummies and dupes.
In a country where shamelessness and impunity are the norm, the abnormal and the outrageous become normalised and even standardised. Expectations are lowered, mediocrity becomes the synonym for excellence, hypocrisy replaces hope. The wise retreat from public engagement and the skilled find greener pastures far away.
The above, sadly, is a somewhat accurate picture of democratic unravelling of the US under Donald Trump. He recently, in what is his 10 000th-plus untruth (according to the Washington Post whose slogan aptly is “democracy dies in darkness”), told four Democratic congresswomen to “go back to the countries you came from” even though three of them are born Americans.
It certainly will become a working description of Great Britain under the new premiership of Boris Johnson. He invented quotes when he was a newspaper correspondent, he lied to his party leader about an extramarital affair, and he once joked that he had no convictions “except an old one for speeding”. Brexit is the rocket fuel that propelled him to Number 10 even though on the day he decided to lead the referendum campaign he drafted two articles for and against, discarded the one and published the other. But then again his view on hard choices is in his witty description “pro having cake and pro eating it”.
But these democratically stressed countries pale by comparison with our own battered and ailing state.
Just the past week has brought forth so many examples of shamelessness, mendacity and double dealing and dimmed expectations, even an ardent cynic would be spoilt for choice.
In an overcrowded field of contestants for the gold medal in these dire stakes and dark times, the incontestable winner is public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. In any half-normal society she would have resigned from office, in disgrace, on the steps of the Constitutional Court on Monday.
This would have been within minutes of being on hand to hear the withering judgment against her in the SA Reserve Bank/Bankcorp case. It upheld the lower court finding that she acted in “bad faith”, confirmed that “she put forward a number of falsehoods … including misrepresentations under oath”. Instead of falling on her sword, Mkhwebane found solace in the (legally irrelevant) minority judgment which did not exonerate her, but simply found that she should not pay the punitive costs order herself.
But only three days before this damning judgment, the public protector had, very conveniently on the last day of Jacob Zuma’s flawed and mostly incoherent testimony to the Zondo commission, published her other hasty and demonstrably error-strewn report. This was against the former president’s nemesis, current president Cyril Ramaphosa.
Her misunderstanding of law, her shaky grasp of fact and her clear malignancy of motive was swatted away by the answering affidavit of Ramaphosa, which he reprised in an assured Sunday-night address to the nation on television. But neither fact nor law were the issue for the public protector. She clearly wanted to establish moral and political equivalence between the demonstrably corrupt and wayward Zuma and the new-broom administration of Cyril Ramaphosa.
On Sunday, and the day before the ConCourt findings against her, it appeared to the world at large that Mkhwebane had succeeded in her mission. For example, the New York Times headlined its report on the fate of the president and his predecessor, “2 South African Presidents Are Called to Account on Corruption”.
The report noted that “South Africans witnessed the extraordinary spectacle this week of having both the president and his predecessor publicly called to account on accusations of corruption – charges that are also escalating a power struggle within the long-governing African National Congress”.
But for all of Rampahosa’s assured performance in his scripted remarks, each of which was fortified the very next day by the findings against Mkhwebane on her mendacity and her incompetence, he unravelled during questions from the press.
By his own admission, his “campaign” for the party presidency cost north of R400m. On the word of one of his staunch backers, Derek Hanekom, his opponent, Nkosasana Dlamini Zuma, spent much more. Let’s cue in for her around R600m. So that is an estimated R1bn to win the allegiance of just 4,700 voting delegates. And this in an organisation where open campaigning is banned, and no public advertisements or billboards or even street posters were produced.
So, an enquiring journalist asked the president, what was the money spent on? “Traveling, accommodations, meetings and so forth,” replied Ramaphosa. That is about as convincing as the answer he gave to parliament on his wayward son Andile and the R500,000 Bosasa donation.
In fact, when RW Johnson once described ANC elective conferences as “auctions” he was guilty only of masterful understatement.
On its face, Ramaphosa’s explanation is absurd and ridiculous. Even if his non-campaign had employed 100 fulltime operatives at generous salaries for one year, flown them around the country in business class, accommodated them in five-star hotels and used top venues for meetings, etc, the back-of-the-envelope costs would be – generously – R25m.
That, incidentally, was the total cost of the Democratic Alliance’s 2004 general election campaign, which garnered 1.9 million votes.
So if the two candidates for the ANC presidency spent about R1bn then that means more than R250,000 per voting delegate. That is probably a more reliable place to look for a lot of the expenditure than the poor one offered by our first citizen.
Not to be outdone in the “pro having cake and pro eating it” stakes is the official opposition. It has given recent and local flavour to the Boris Johnson aphorism.
Its explanation of reporting Ramaphosa to the public protector for misleading parliament is eminently reasonable. It had no other recourse. It was the only route open to it under the Executive Ethics Act even though, as Geordin Hill Lewis MP averred in an article, the “legitimate avenue” is a public protector who is “sadly compromised”.
But what his explanation glaringly omits is not the avenue pursued and prescribed, but the party’s reliance on the accuracy of her report.
On Friday, Mmusi Maimane rushed to judgment and seized on the public protector’s report as accurate and beyond question. Even though the DA had flayed her other reports (Reserve Bank and Vrede Dairy for examples) as proof of her unfitness for office.
A first-year law student could have poked holes in her report. Since Ramaphosa’s attorney, Peter Harris, is considerably more legally experienced than that, he duly did so in drafting the replying affidavit to it. But this did not deter or seemingly enter the frame of opposition thinking.
The wise US jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote: “In certain instances, the case is more important than the client.”
Words to apply in these troubled times.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.
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