Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
10 December 2008

USA v SA public morality

It’s not often that I would argue that South Africa could learn something from a politics in the USA (those weirdos have, after all, voted for George W Bush twice in a row) but I was struck today by the difference in the way allegations of corruption by senior politicians are being dealt with in these two countries.

On the one hand we have KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Health Minister Neliswa Nkonyeni (not to mention our own Dear Leader who can’t seem to find his machine gun anywhere), who was arrested on Wednesday, and will face charges of corruption, fraud and additional charges under the Public Finance Management Act when she re-appears in court in January. The Mail & Guardian reports:

Nkonyeni was warmly greeted by colleagues, well-wishers and supporters in court. The courtroom was jammed with journalists, court staff and onlookers. Nkonyeni’s supporters broke out in song and chanted in protest against what they perceived as the delay to the start of court proceedings.

Health department spokesperson Chris Maxon said Nkonyeni would continue her duties as provincial health minister.  “She has not been charged yet and she is presumed innocent until proven guilty. When we got to court today, the prosecution was playing another ball game, saying they are not charging anyone with anything, but on January 22 they may place charges.”

On the other hand we have news from Illinois, in the USA where Governor Rod R. Blagojevich was arrested and accused of putting a newly vacant seat in the United States Senate up for sale. There political leaders in the state on Wednesday joined growing calls for his resignation and, as the New York Times reports, sought ways to neutralize him in the meantime, by stripping him of appointment authority or even impeaching him.

Meanwhile, political leaders across the state, including the attorney general, the lieutenant governor, and legislative leaders, reacted to the charges against Mr. Blagojevich with a chorus of shock and dismay, and urged that the governor step down immediately.

Mr. Blagojevich (pronounced bluh-GOY-uh-vich), a Democrat, was arrested at his home at dawn Tuesday on charges of conspiracy and soliciting bribes. A lawyer for the governor said he denied any wrongdoing.

Two countries and two completely different responses. Both countries have a Bill of Rights which guarantees accused persons the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. But in the USA, the arrest of the Governor immediately led politicians – across party lines – to call for his resignation despite him not having being convicted of any crime.

In South Africa, the arrested politicians (Zuma, Nkonyeni, Yengeni) become heroes despite facing serious charges. This is the difference between a country with a developed sense of public morality and a country where public morality is completely absent from the body politic. In the USA Mr Zuma could never have become the leader of the ANC. In South Africa, Mr Zuma will become the next President of South Africa.

President elect Barack Obama (who served as a Senator for Illinois), immediately sought to put distance between himself and the governor during brief remarks on Tuesday afternoon.

“I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so we were not — I was not aware of what was happening,” Mr. Obama said. “And as I said, it’s a sad day for Illinois. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment.”

In South Africa, Tony Yengeni is carried shoulder high to the gates of jail and accompanied  to those gates by senior leaders of his own party. Mark my words Mr. Blagojevich will resign in the next few days to fight his case in court. However, in South Africa, when then President Thabo Mbeki dismissed Jacob Zuma as Deputy President after Schabir Shaik was convicted of bribing Zuma, there was an outcry from various quarters. After all, these people said, Mr Zuma is innocent until proven guilty.

Nobody in the US is suggesting that because Mr Blagojevich is innocent until proven guilty it would therefore be unfair for him to have to resign. It is taken for granted that when one is charged with corruption one’s political career is effectively over. If Mr Blagojevich’s friend had been convicted of bribing him he would not have had a snowballs hope in hell of remaining the Governor.

This is a rather sad juxtaposition and says much about what a broken and damaged society we are and how our society lacks the basic public morality required for the effective functioning of democracy.

That said, the reason why US public morality is of a higher order has nothing to do with the fact that the US is a developed country, or that the majority of people living in the US are Western or white (as some racists might argue). It has everything to do with self interest. All politicians in the USA know that to survive they have to distance themselves from politicians accused of corruption. But because the ANC has such a dominant position in South Africa, ANC politicians have become arrogant and rightly or wrongly believes that they need not adhere to the kind of public morality prevalent in the US.

Over time this attitude will come back to haunt the ANC as slowly but surely more people will come to associate the ANC with corruption and immorality. Jacob Zuma admitted as much yesterday when he spoke to reporters in Namibia. But because of the needs of the ANC to pander to the short term self interest of individual politicians, nothing will be done to deal with this until it is too late.

Only time will tell how long it will take before it is indeed “too late”.

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