South Africans are all equal

Douglas Gibson says it is up to the justice system to weed crooked politicians out of the democratic process

The promise and the aim of the South African Constitution is that we are all equal. That we are still far from realising the ideal is evident every day. Actions of our leaders in government often gravely undermine the notion of equality and raise the question whether they share the ideal or whether it is merely a paper promise, made to keep the masses quiet, but certainly not applicable to “senior” people.

At last, a senior government figure is being prosecuted; many more should be in the dock, instead of being high on the ANC election list. The most senior politician to be prosecuted, protested about the fact that she, a “senior,” was about to be arrested.   

She did not get away with that ill-advised nonsense. Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa Nqakula compounded her embarrassment when she, a former Minister of Correctional Services, argued powerfully against being held in jail, instead of being given bail. The stupidity and gross insensitivity of her argument about prison conditions made her look foolish.

She argued that prisons are overcrowded, riddled with violence, and a “cruel punishment.” She said further, among many other allegations, that access to ablution and sanitation services was totally inadequate and that access to medical facilities was virtually non-existent. This, from a person who was for three years the responsible minister and who, for twenty years, as a member of the Cabinet, had co-responsibility for our prisons. But then, of course, ordinary criminals and prisoners are not “senior.”

I do not glory in the downfall of this woman. We served together in Parliament for many years, and like all of us, she had a good side. I remember that about twenty years ago I broke my ankle (walking on a fitted carpet in Parliament), and spent the next eight weeks in a plaster cast on crutches. One Sunday evening I was standing outside Cape Town airport, waiting for the shuttle, and in some discomfort. A black ministerial car drew up nearby, the rear window went down, and Nosiviwe’s face appeared as she said, “Darling, you can’t stand there on crutches like that. Please let me give you a lift home.” I was touched by her motherly concern.

Personal qualities of kindness and warmth can never trump the need to hold to account public figures, however senior, for their actions. Those who transgress must be charged, given a fair trial and if found guilty, punished like every other criminal. South Africa has failed woefully in this regard. Some of the most senior people in our country are generally regarded as being dishonest, looters, solicitors and recipients of bribes, and deeply committed to enriching themselves, enabling them to live millionaire lifestyles beyond the dreams of ordinary South Africans.

Some voters seem prepared to overlook all of this and not to understand that politicians who get away with it, are encouraged to continue being corrupt. I recently said to an Uber driver that I did not understand how so many voters seem to follow Jacob Zuma, whose corrupt record is well-known. The driver smiled at me and said, “The voters think all politicians are crooks.”

As an attorney of forty years’ standing, and a political career at all three levels of government over a period of fifty years, I know that not all politicians are crooks. It is up to our Justice system to prove that the crooks get put away, leaving the decent politicians, of all parties, to represent the people.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand.

This article first appeared in The Star newspaper.