South Africa: Land of scandalous public figures who choose to brazen it out

South Africa: Land of scandalous public figures who choose to brazen it out

Shamefulness is a by-product of decency. Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who hiked his own salary into the stratosphere, clearly suffers from the opposite condition

Synchronicity is the concept pioneered by psychologist Carl Jung who held that events are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship, but apparently are meaningfully related.

Ben Trisk, the enterprising CEO of Exclusive Books, recently gave gifted me with a new book by British author Jon Ronson entitled So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Perhaps he thought there was a “meaningful coincidence” between public shaming and a career spent in politics.

But it was indeed synchronistic that I was reading it when simultaneously as more than the usual high winds of public scandal gusted across South Africa.

Ronson’s book was inspired in large measure by the instantaneous electronic shaming occasioned by such modern inventions as Twitter and Facebook and revolves around those unfortunate enough to have had  what he terms a “Justine Sacco moment’’.

Readers might recall the infamous New York publicist Sacco. In October and November 2013, Google AdWords, which measures how many times your name has been searched for during any given month, came up with just 30 Googles of her name. Yet during the 11 days between December 20 and the end of that month she was Googled 1 220 000 times.

Her global infamy was all due to one tweet she sent en route from Heathrow to Cape Town on 20 December 20 2013. She advised her then 170 followers: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Her holiday from hell which followed seemed to many as no less than her just deserts. The interesting aspect of this book is how the author follows up on the Saccos of the Twittersphere and Facebook and records how they suffer — through stupidity or carelessness or crass racism — unimagined consequences.

In Justine Sacco’s case it is basically a narrative arc of a life more or less in ruins, from losing her job to cascading into deep depression in the intervening two years since tapping out those 140 characters. Little redemption but a lot of contrition on her part fill the pages which bear testimony to the brutal prediction of one of her denouncers: “Sorry @Justine Sacco — your tweet lives on forever”.

Other than her race and gender, the DA’s Dianne Kohler Barnard bears no resemblance to Justine Sacco. But she has recently endured a public shaming due to an incautious sharing of on Facebook of a post which she apparently never read through to the end. The sting, of course, was in the conclusion of the item, which called for a return to office of apartheid strongman PW Botha.

Happily, my political career ended before social media took off, and who knows how it might have concluded had it happened in the age of instantaneous thought- sharing with the wider world. Given my itchy Twitter finger, I suspect not too happily.

Back when Botha died in November 2006, I had gone on the opposite journey to Ms Sacco and had just landed at Heathrow from South Africa. When my media officer called needing a statement on his Botha’s demise, I dictated words of extreme equivocation. I noted that on the one hand he had presided over a South Africa fractured and “engulfed by incipient civil war”; and placed great reliance on state security to “suppress dissent”. On the other hand, I said, it was under Mr Botha that the National Party started to turn its back on Verwoerdian apartheid and forced the right wing out of his party.

The president of the day, Thabo Mbeki, was far less equivocal and far more lavish in his praise than the leader of the opposition back then. He described Botha as ranking alongside Oliver Tambo as “partners in the creation of the freedom of the brave”.

Nelson Mandela’s sentiments were similar and he professed a warmer appreciation for Botha than for his far more reformist successor, FW de Klerk.

Mbeki suffered no adverse effects from his encomium; Kohler Barnard has received exemplary discipline and punishment. Thus it’s not just words, but the political identity and — certainly in our divided country — the race of the originator of the statement.

But Kohler Barnard was forthright in her apology, contrite in her shame and accepted the punishment which followed.

All of this leads to an interesting question posed by Radio 702 broadcaster Debora Patta. On Friday she set the lines of her talk show ablaze by suggesting that South Africa had become a land “without shame”.

There are so many examples of public officials who pilfer from the state and stand accused of serious crimes   who suffer neither any sense of shame nor indeed any loss of office.

Brazening it out, denouncing the accuser and claiming some God-given, or racially protected, right to carry on as before is the default position stance of many in positions of the highest authority.

Everyone remembers the recent public shaming of the fraudulent Pallo Jordan. But he will be less remembered for his misdeed — claiming an unearned doctorate — than for the exemplary decision he took to fall on his sword as a consequence of his exposure. And that is because his act is so rare here.

At the very opposite end of this moral spectrum is the SABC chief operating officer, the notorious Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Dogged by scandal, facing disciplinary charges for abuse of power, maladministration and fraudulently misrepresenting his qualifications, he just toughs it out. A pliant plaint board and a pathetic minister assist in enabling him to defy the courts and the public protector.

Shamefulness is a by-product of decency. Motsoeneng, who managed to hike his own salary into the stratosphere despite the SABC reporting a loss of R395-million during the past financial year, clearly suffers from the opposite condition. He, and so many others in the ranks of the shameless, continue to shame South Africa as a result.

This article first appeared in The Times

By |2015-10-26T10:02:31+00:00October 14th, 2015|Democratic Alliance, Opinion, South African Politics, Thabo Mbeki|0 Comments

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