Well-intentioned men of zeal and the harm they do

Well-intentioned men of zeal and the harm they do

In his famous 1928 dissenting opinion in Olmstead vs United States, US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis offered a warning to freedom-lovers everywhere.

He wrote: “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but with little understanding.”

Last weekend’s headline in this newspaper trumpeted the imminent arrest of senior former executives who had pillaged and plundered state companies (SOEs) from Eskom to Transnet. But since Brian Molefe, Anoj Singh, Siyabonga Gama and others who charted the road to ruin of these entities are now so infamous, they might as well star as the pantomime villains in Janice Honeyman’s Jack and the Beanstalk.

The scale of the misdeed and mismanagement and the epic corruption they presided over, or worse, attracts the righteous anger of everyone from the president down. No right-thinking person ever announced themselves in favour of corruption.

We might, to adapt the Brandeis judgment, describe Molefe and his merry gang as the “invaders” who were more of “evil mind” than pure heart.

But what of the other half of the legal equation — the “insidious encroachment by men of zeal”? They are always less obvious and certainly for the most part do not countenance illegality or flouting of process and procedure.

In mourning the “lost decade” in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s summation of the criminal enterprise known as state capture, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that an enabler of the blatant illegalities it birthed was also occasioned by a decision taken during the presidency of Nelson Mandela.

In late 1998, the ANC and its alliance partners endorsed a key document, “ The State, Property Relations and Social Transformation”, that explicitly rejected the concept of a politically unaligned and merit-driven civil service. It also mandated that the state was “an instrument in the hands of the liberation movement”. All areas in its remit — including, crucially, SOEs — were deemed to be “crucial for the transformation project”. The “national liberation movement” was commanded to “extend its power over all levers of power”. Once again SOEs featured high on the list.

One of “the men of zeal” who authored that document was ANC national executive committee member Joel Netshitenzhe. As well as still being on the NEC he is, ironically, a main board director of Nedbank — one of the key deciders in throwing bankrupt SAA into business rescue.

I doubt Netshitenzhe envisioned 20 years ago that the endpoint of the cadre deployment for which he provided the intellectual cover would see the infamous gang at Transnet, Eskom or the ill-starred turn of Dudu Myeni at SAA. But that is precisely what happens when politic loyalty and demographic determinism trumps all other considerations. Or when ideology overpowers common sense.

Undeterred by a graveyard of policy failures and a broken-backed state, the government ploughs on with the idea that it alone knows best and will command the whole of society.

Perhaps this idea owes more to Mussolini than Marx, but it is now coming to your local gym. According to a report on a new bill agreed by the cabinet and released by the minister of sport & recreation just before Christmas, the “government plans to nationalise all sports codes and gyms in SA”. Having illustrated how state control has shuttered electricity, seized up the railways and bottlenecked the ports, it now wants to turn its hand to leisure and sport. That should work well.

Meantime as a New Year treat, do watch the Netflix movie The Two Popes. It is a magnificent reminder of how humour and humanity can overcome the most rigid ideologies. Happy holidays!

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
@TonyLeonSA.

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