Quote of the week

Regard must be had to the higher standard of conduct expected from public officials, and the number of falsehoods that have been put forward by the Public Protector in the course of the litigation.  This conduct included the numerous “misstatements”, like misrepresenting, under oath, her reliance on evidence of economic experts in drawing up the report, failing to provide a complete record, ordered and indexed, so that the contents thereof could be determined, failing to disclose material meetings and then obfuscating the reasons for them and the reasons why they had not been previously disclosed, and generally failing to provide the court with a frank and candid account of her conduct in preparing the report. The punitive aspect of the costs order therefore stands.

KHAMPEPE J and THERON J
Public Protector v South African Reserve Bank (CCT107/18) [2019] ZACC 29 (22 July 2019)
3 May 2007

Mr MEC, you are not important

Politicians have a special talent for saying astoundingly stupid and inappropriate things. South African politicians of all stripes are, of course, no exception. But in South Africa, politicians who are caught breaking the law are particularly good at making fools of themselves, so it was no surprise when KwaZulu-Natal MEC, Bheki Cele, tried to defend himself when it became known that his convoy broke the law by travelling at very high speed on the highway, blue lights flashing, for no other reason that he was late for a meeting.

However, when he started attacking the motorist who reported him to the newspaper by calling the motorist “a self-made, arrogant, non-accountable individual who purports to be a good citizen and I will dare to argue that he is also a racist”, I thought he was channelling Pieter Dirk Uys.

But no, there he was this morning on the radio self-righteously claiming a right to break the law and demonising the person who reported him as a “law breaker”. The chutzpah is breathtaking, but it is not really funny.

The real issue here is not the question of whether Mr. Cele is a tin-eared fool or whether those who reported him are racists. No, the problem is that a servant of the people – an MEC who has sworn to uphold the Constitution and the law – has the audacity to claim he has a right to break the law because he was late for a meeting. In other words, he is claiming that because he is a politician, he is so bloody important that he need not obey the laws our mere mortals are required to obey.

Some would say that given our history and the culture of respect for authority, behaviour like that of Mr Cele should not be criticised – especially by a white person – and that those who criticise him are at best culturally insensitive and at worst racist.

I do think such arguments can sometimes be valid. But in this case I would say that some cultural impulses are so obviously wrong and dangerous that they need to be rejected with contempt. I grew up as an Afrikaans boy in a small town where my culture told me to endorse the most horrible kinds of racism and discrimination. When I left my small town and got some sense into my head, I rejected that part of my culture.

I say this “culture of self-importance” is a despicable thing and should be rooted out as soon as possible. Any person who lives in South Africa and believes in democracy – no matter what their race – should therefore condemn the kind of haughty self-importance displayed by Mr. Cele and his ilk and should not hide behind race or culture to justify the indefensible.

It might seem like a small thing, but I think the attitude of smug, arrogant self-importance displayed by Mr Cele, is the kind of attitude that breeds disrespect for democracy and later disrespect for life.

Dictatorships are born when ordinary people allow their leaders to put on airs and to act as if they are above the law. Once they get into the habit of not obeying one law, there is no telling which other laws they will ignore in future. Today it is flashing blue lights, tomorrow it is stealing the funds for the development project and next year people who criticise are taken away and “disappeared”.

Then again, it is no wonder Mr. Cele has a need for a flashing blue light convoy – the way the Constitution is implemented at the moment means that his job as an MEC entails little more than being a glorified clerk for the national Minister. He should start acting like a clerk (and a servant of the people) and stop pretending that he is important. He is not.

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