Crooked criticism and apartheid revisionism

LeonTony Leon caused was indirectly responsible for much outrage on Twitter today, thanks to his Business Day column titled “When crooked politicians were not tolerated”. In this column, Leon offers some examples of corrupt politicians during apartheid being imprisoned due to their crookedness, and compares this to modern-day examples in ANC governments, particularly Tony Yengeni (who returned from a brief prison spell, only to resume employment in the ANC) and Dina Pule (who has not been prosecuted, and probably will never be).

The responses I saw on Twitter included:

One paragraph of Leon’s piece reads as follows:

The NP promoted and prosecuted a political system which oppressed and disfigured this country, and its security apparatus did far worse. But it was not so forgiving of its own members who looted public office for personal ends. And to the extent that it turned a blind eye, it did not interfere when the departments of justice and correctional services indicted and processed its members, some of them very prominent indeed.

Is he wrong about that? Many – including some of those people I quote above – say that he is, and linked to this paper on as evidence. But the paragraph I quote there is notable in that the first sentence of it surely gives the lie to all three of the responses quoted above.

This is because the tone of these responses paint Leon as denying the corruption inherent in apartheid, and thus, comfortably fit with an established narrative (regardless of it’s truth) going back to Leon’s leadership of the DP that painted him as a enemy of racial redress. Well, to put it more plainly, the criticism in those days painted him as a racist, and sometimes made little apology for doing so.

For the record, I didn’t like either the “Fight back” or the “Stop Zuma” campaigns – in fact, the last line of a post I wrote at the time of the latter read

It comes as a great surprise to me, but I can’t say with any confidence that I’ll be voting DA tomorrow.

But Leon is not denying the corruption inherent in apartheid at all. He’s doing something we’re quite familiar with when it comes to liberals, including myself – he’s stating a (contestable, yes) fact in a tone-deaf sort of way, or in a way that doesn’t do enough genuflecting in the direction of his critics’ sensibilities. Perhaps something like this:

Strategically, this might or might not be a mistake, as I recently wrote with regard to Richard Dawkins. But to present Leon as having rose-tinted spectacles in a general sense with regard to the apartheid era is disingenuous to the point of causing me to distrust whether these critics are even interested in debate, rather than “winning” by simply caricaturing an opponent.

They are more incompetent than uncharitable readings, because they simply ignore the fact that Leon could well agree that corruption was rife under apartheid, but that nevertheless, there were more apparent penalties for violating the (corrupt) rules under that corrupt system than there are today. Honour among thieves, and all that. He’s not excusing the system – he’s saying that despite the overall horror of that system, here’s one element that functioned (relatively) well.

It’s also true that we don’t know know how selectively people were prosecuted by the system, and how much of a blind eye the government turned to corruption – but we don’t know that today, either. What we do know – and this is Leon’s point – is that Zuma has paid no penalty for a “generally corrupt” relationship with a businessman, and that the businessman himself served a rather small proportion of his 15 year sentence. We know of Pule, and Yengeni. We know that corruption is the leading topic on far too many news reports, and we know that little is done about it.

An occasional sacrifice or scapegoat (assuming that’s all the National Party’s victims as described by Leon amounted to) isn’t necessarily proof of moral rectitude. But it’s nevertheless a signal that there can be consequences to corrupt behaviour, and it thus helps – even if imperfectly – to rein that behaviour in. And this is what Leon’s column says. It concludes:

But in celebrating the democracy which replaced [apartheid], we should not avert our gaze from the undertow that came in its wake: the rapaciousness of public life and the lack of consequences for leading transgressors. Unaddressed, these might soon capsize the ship of state itself.

[EDIT] It has already become apparent via Twitter and T.O. Molefe’s comment below that the “things were better under apartheid” zombie-‘fact’ is being assumed in both Leon’s column, and this blog post of mine. No – Leon claims (at least on my reading) that more public representatives cared about their jobs then, and that a larger proportion of public representatives were punished for corruption under that government. Not that there was less corruption, nor any other “exceptionalism” claim related to apartheid. The best articulation of why that “exceptionalism” stuff is false, and why I don’t want support in comments from people who believe it, that I can recall is in this Ivo Vegter column in the Daily Maverick.[/EDIT]

President Zuma on religion and “humanity”

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

It’s always a surprise to find oneself agreeing with Floyd Shivambu, but if President Jacob Zuma really did say what he’s reported to have said at a church service on Sunday, he should certainly face his day in court. Not only a court involving advocates and charges of corruption, but also the court of public opinion, where he should be found guilty of a gross lack of judgement in using intolerant and divisive rhetoric to divert attention from the ANC Youth League’s criticism of him.

If a Helen Zille tweet speaking of “education refugees” can result in a week of widespread outrage, how is it the case that Zuma can effectively say that the non-religious have no humanity without (at least) equivalent levels of outrage? In fact, he should not only face criticism from the public and censure from the party, but if you support the hate speech provisions in our law, this should perhaps also be a matter for the courts.

“We need to build our nation because presently we have a nation of thugs. This is a task faced by the church. Fear of God has vanished and that means that humanity has vanished”, is what Zuma is reported to have said to the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. We do indeed need to build our nation, but as I’ve previously argued, when it comes to moral leadership Zuma is hardly the man for the job.

The church can certainly play a part – a large and possibly effective part, seeing as the majority of South Africans are members of some church or another. And when the church focuses on respect, love, compassion and other sorts of virtuous qualities, I wish them all possible success. But when the church that our new Chief Justice belongs to endorses the view that homosexuality is a sickness that can be “cured”, it should be immediately clear that churches have no monopoly on morality.

My previous columns have frequently discussed the absence of a positive correlation between religious belief and moral virtue, but this is not the point here. Whether it’s true or not that religion can encourage those virtues, the fact remains that non-believers are in no way handicapped when it comes to discerning right from wrong. We use different standards to do so, yet mostly end up with the same conclusions as the religious do.

This is obviously so, because most of these conclusions are obvious ones that anyone living amongst others would reach. We all have an equal investment in social cohesion and freedom from fear, and shared rules make those goods possible, regardless of how we reason our way to them. In South Africa, as in many poor countries, humanity “vanishes” largely because people are materially insecure, and resort to opportunism to address those insecurities.

If your life is miserable, you’re less invested in the future, and more invested in seizing opportunities where you find them. The narrative of a harmonious “rainbow nation” only gains traction if you have reason to care for the welfare of others, and it’s not always the case that we do. The church can provide reasons of this sort, yes – but stronger and more universally respected reasons are secured when people have jobs and food, perhaps along with a government they can trust to not exploit them.

If it’s only fear of God that keeps religious people from breaking laws or harming others – or even from having humanity – then we should be seeing far worse moral crises in secular countries than we do in religious ones such as ours. And what does lacking humanity mean? Are secular folk simply lacking some moral property, or are we somehow not even human on Zuma’s reckoning? And what does it say about the moral character of the religious when the implicit claim is made that without religion, they’d suddenly discover or rediscover the impulse to rape, rob and murder?

Whether you call it “humanity” or not, President Zuma, many of us don’t do these immoral things due to the belief that it’s wrong to do them. As much as I’m willing to say that your religious beliefs are false, I’ll only start saying that you lack humanity when you act like you lack humanity – not only because you have a different worldview to mine.

Like perhaps now, where you essentially tell me and all other non-believers that we are qualitatively inferior to you and other believers. You – the man who hasn’t gone more than a couple of months without some press coverage on things like rape trials, dodgy arms-deal allegations, shady friends, financial mismanagement, corruption or reckless sexual behaviour.

I get that you need to defend yourself against the current round of attacks from Shivambu and others, and that you’re heading into a delicate situation in Mangaung later this year. You’re entitled, and would be expected to, defend yourself by rallying religious support. But you can do so without calling my humanity into question. Choosing to do so is divisive, inflammatory, and intolerant of any worldview that doesn’t accord with your belief in God.

And it certainly seems to lack humanity to me. But then, perhaps I lack the necessary qualifications to speak as a human at all.

And Rasool (allegedly) bribing journalists is okay

In January, I was quite pleased to read reports of ANC sources claiming that Ebrahim Rasool might be recalled from his ambassadorship in the US. Not simply because of a lack of fondness for him, but rather because it’s not outlandish to suggest he should never have been appointed as ambassador to the US until the investigation regarding the Brown Envelope scandal was completed.

For those who aren’t familiar with the case, the issue is this: Rasool was alleged to have indirectly used public funds to help incentivise two Cape Argus journalists to write stories that favoured him, and that presented his Western Cape ANC opponents in a negative light. These bribes were (if these stories are true) paid in cash, placed in brown envelopes.

The internal ANC investigation into these allegations was terminated in 2006, but the matter was nevertheless considered serious enough for ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe to confirm that Rasool was fired as Western Cape Premier in 2008 partly as a result of the allegations: “Rasool was removed as premier of the Western Cape all because of this case, among other things”.

Now, it’s true that Ashley Smith never appeared to be the most credible of witnesses. Perhaps Rasool was indeed falsely accused. But some within his party seemed to think the allegations true. They are also serious enough that it’s welcome news that Gasant Abader’s (current editor of the Cape Argus) access-to-information application to compel the ANC to release their report on their investigations has been successful.

The relevant parties are still studying the report, and we’ll no doubt hear more on this as time passes. But in the meanwhile, Rasool continues in a high-profile ambassadorial post, despite not only the Brown Envelope scandal, but also further allegations of corruption made in 2010 to the police commercial crimes unit. You’d like to think that allegations of significant corruption matter – not only in party deployments, but also with regard to our international representatives abroad.

Some ANC leaders agree that these matters are serious. In 2011, one of them said:

One issue that constantly cropped up in the elections research, even among our staunchest supporters, is that the ANC is soft on corruption and looks after their own. This requires a system for processing such allegations that will send a message of an ANC that is intolerant of corruption.

Today, an ANC leader is quoted in the Cape Times as saying that he didn’t think the Brown Envelope investigation needed to be completed, because “Ebrahim (Rasool) is no longer premier, he has gone on with his life”.

The first quote is from ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. The second? Also Gwede Mantashe. I suppose that’s another allegation “processed”, then.

Responsible reporting: At what cost?

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Free speech is not the only value that democratic societies subscribe to. Nor does, or should, our commitment to free speech always have to trump competing values such as national security or personal dignity. But the principle of free speech nevertheless stands in need of exceptional, and exceptionally strong, counterarguments in cases where we are told that it is not permissible to broadcast or publish any particular point of view.

This commitment to an open marketplace of ideas rests on the belief that each person should have access to the points of view in circulation, so that he or she is able to exercise their right to moral independence by considering the ideas themselves. As Mill reminds us, compromising free speech costs us both the opportunity to hear things that are true, which can help to correct errors; and also to hear things that are false, where the truth is strengthened by “its collision with error”.

The honest Swazi nation

The Doctor and I are in Swaziland, attending the wedding of two good friends. It’s my second visit here, and it is no less alien to city-slickers the second time around. Mbabane, the capital city, has a “CBD” that seems to stretch out over many kilometers, encompassing such attractions as the “Mediterranean Restaurant” as well as derelict houses aplenty. And driving involves the skillful avoidance of a fair number of mangy dogs and cows. Everything looks like it needs a paint-job.