Israel is one of the few countries available for the South African political establishment to burnish their human rights credentials.
For reasons of solidarity and expediency or simple inattention, such gross rights violators as Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Syria –where political protestors are shot dead, imprisoned or gassed with poison respectively, escape both attention and censure.
Thus the chairperson of Parliament’s portfolio committee on International Relations and Co-Operation , declared on 16 May both his ‘applause’ and personal participation in an initiative to fast in solidarity with 1 500 Palestinian prisoners who have undertaken a hunger strike in Israeli jails.
The chairperson, Siphosezwe Masango MP, added that this action “places our country at the centre of the global fight against injustices and human rights abuses”. I suppose any discovery of our lost human rights credentials is to be welcomed. But given the free passes and blind eyes his committee has provided to so many more egregious transgressors of citizens’ freedoms across the globe, he might find limited appreciation for his act in the wider world.
Among the list of local luminaries who participated in the solidarity fast were some well-known names who have spoken up against the state capture, looting of government assets and institutions which have become the depressing and daily features of our national life. Cyril Ramaphosa, Gwede Mantashe and Derek Hamekom appear on both lists: outspoken in support of the rights of Palestinian prisoners in the assertion of their rights against their Israeli captors and equally vocal in their determination to stamp out corrupt practices at home.
I imagine, therefore, that Israel is probably the last place they would look to find a solution to interdicting state crime and corruption and prosecuting the highest offenders.
I happened to be in Israel two weeks ago when both the political prisoner issue and the fight against corruption assumed centre stage there.
Israel, ironically, has the South African situation in reverse: that country is far worse than we were in addressing its meta-issue – in their case, a peaceful solution to the Palestinian question and their imprisoned leaders. On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War and the occupation of the West Bank, and despite President Donald Trump careening across the Middle East this week, a final settlement seems very far away.
But on the issue which is engulfing South Africa right now and which threatens to denude the famous 1994 settlement here of its best prospects and essential meaning, government corruption, or in Ramaphosa’s words the rise of a ‘’mafia state”, Israel provides no end of lessons.
Simultaneously, with the Holy Land’s inability to grasp the nettle with the Palestinians, and vice versa, Israel’s Prime Minister is being subject to an intense police investigation into alleged corrupt practices. Benyamin Netanyahu might or might not escape prosecution.
But there is no question there that his high office and long service will provide a shield against criminal charges if the evidence is unearthed for a likely indictment.
The track record there proves that ministerial rank is no place to hide. The former president Moshe Katsav is in prison following his conviction for raping and sexually assaulting former female assistants. More pertinently, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is also in prison after he was convicted of fraud and breach of trust and tax evasion.
Unlike, in South Africa, it is not necessary for the Israeli opposition parties to rush to court to get the prosecution charges reinstated against an erring president . Those charged with the prosecution of criminals can be relied upon to do their jobs.
A fearsomely independent attorney general’s office, coupled with effective policing and a comptroller (or public protector) offer no favours, indeed the reverse, to the political high and mighty. Perhaps that is one reason why Israel, despite the bad neighbourhood in which it exists, outranks South Africa by some 36 places (28th versus 64th) on the 2016 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
But if Israel is an uncomfortable place to seek comparative solutions for home-grown corruption, Brazil – a fellow member of BRICS, might be a more congenial fit.
It is striking in South America’s continental giant that its second president in one year, Michael Temer, last week faced calls to resign after he was fingered alongside dozens of other ministers and officials, in the largest corruption scandal to engulf the country. So far, 100 leading politicians and businessmen have been convicted. Last year, congressional pressure and street protests saw his predecessor Dilma Rouseff be impeached, which possibly could be Temer’s fate as well.
But equally possible is that the legal process –rather than a political procedure could do him in. The Brazil Supreme Court has authorised an investigation into Mr Temer’s case. Currently, according to the Financial Times, no fewer than one third of his cabinet colleagues are under investigation as well.
Temer is more of an apparatchik, whom circumstances thrust into the presidency. But if any one politician in Brazil assumes the equivalent of rock star status, it is Rouseff’s predecessor Luiz Inacio da Silva, known universally as Lula. When he exited office he was acclaimed with hosannas from his countrymen and the world. He was the roughhewn local equivalent to Nelson Mandela.
But his iconic status has not saved him from the jaws of the prosecutorial process in Brazil. In mid-May he too appeared in court flowing from the investigation into the Brazilian state owned mega oil company, Petrobras. Its den of corrupt practices and bribery makes the shenanigans around ESKOM here seem like chump change.
Still, while Lula has vigorously protested his innocence and announced he will run again as president next year, he faces one huge hurdle.
The judge presiding over his case is Sergio Moro. He is a fearsome corruption buster with an impressive track record. Sending dozens of politicians to jail already in the Petrobras scandal has seen him rank as one of the most popular figures in Brazil.
Over a dinner last week with a local legal luminary at Franschhoek during the annual literary festival there, the talk turned to the usual table-top conversational which consumes politically –aware South Africans these days: who will the ANC elect as its president? Can he rather than she save South Africa? Are the ruling party and the country so firmly on the road to perdition that it makes no difference?
The guest made an interesting intervention: just imagine, he speculated, if the next president appointed Billy Downer as National Director of Public Prosecutions. It might be recalled that he has 30 years in the prosecution service and was at the forefront of inner voices there urging the NDPP not to drop the criminal charges against Jacob Zuma. Already vindicated in recent court cases, when the Constitutional Court weighs the dubious decision on the charges, Downer will be vindicated. Who better to appoint to lead the charge, from the top, against the politically corrupt?
And, in the ethically hobbled and utterly demoralised SA Revenue Service, why not appoint Thuli Madonesela, famed former Public Protector, to the top post? She will not just collect the revenue honestly, but will not shield the politically connected from the full weight of the law.
Finally, in a country which has produced some outsize, successful business leaders, making any one of a dozen of them minister of finance would send the most powerful of signals to both the investor community and the rating agencies, that we are indeed open again for business and the agenda is inclusive growth.
This happy national dream is, of course, a nightmare for those who have profited from the plunder of the state without care or consequence. Let’s just see if it is a winning ticket in December and beyond.
- Featured in The Sunday Times