South Africa

OPINIONISTA: Ubuntu? What Ubuntu?

We live in a country that is now desperately short of public funds and where millions are in the greatest need of assistance, and yet where the limited funds available are treated as the piggy bank for rent-seeking public office bearers and politically connected individuals. So much for your humanity!

In his latest letter to the nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke eloquently about the scourge of corruption that continues to engulf the country, with a select group literally taking food out of the mouths of millions of South Africans whose desperate living conditions, some 26 years since the dawn of democracy, have become even more precarious as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. He observed that to fight this crime against the nation and its welfare “requires a new consciousness and new sense of accountability”.

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Profiting from disaster is the action of scavengers

But is it possible to develop this new consciousness? 

The core value that the 1996 Constitution was supposed to uphold, was that of Ubuntu (even as the concept was not expressly included in the text due to the fetish with plain language at the time), expressed fully in Xhosa, “Umntu ngumntu ngabantu” or as Archbishop Tutu put, it, “my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours”.

And yet we live in a country that is now desperately short of public funds and where millions are in the greatest need of assistance, and yet where the limited funds available are treated as the piggy bank for rent-seeking public officer bearers and politically connected individuals. So much for your humanity!

If we are brutally honest, we would be compelled to admit to no social compact that welds us together as a nation in which my humanity is inextricably linked to yours. By contrast, governance across the length and breadth of this country cares not a jot for the other in the rush to garner as much of state resources as is possible for a few. The majestic concept of Ubuntu and the key values of freedom, dignity and equality, as enshrined in our Constitution, have been replaced with greed and regard for myself as opposed to my fellow South African.

We simply cannot have a constitutional democracy and maintain this enduring level of rapacious corruption. And regrettably, Mr President, it is almost impossible to see how the new consciousness, of which you speak, can be developed without some drastic and brave decisions being taken now.

For starters, when in the letter the president speaks of having rebuilt the National Prosecuting Authority and the Hawks, it is highly unlikely that the majority of the country believes this claim. In the 18 months since the NPA has been under new management, not one prominent corrupt politician has been charged. No case has been brought to court that would convince the public that these institutions have been rebuilt.

The leadership of these institutions should be put to terms. There is no need to charge a person with hundreds of charges; one or two low-hanging charges will suffice. Agreed that the coverage of corruption in the media does not amount to a docket-ready case, but in a number of exposés the investigative journalists have come pretty close.

it is high time for the first time ever in South Africa that a principle is implemented that clear proven incompetence in office, credible involvement — whether directly or indirectly — or errors of judgment that contribute to corrupt practices should be visited by dismissal. Without a zero-tolerance policy, no meaningful change will ever take place.

It is disturbing to read the claim from the NPA that its ability to use information from the Zondo commission, as well to recruit its staff, is a game changer. First, it is very arguable that the NPA was to date precluded from using information from the Zondo Commission. Second,  it is acknowledged that the product of the Zondo Commission is not docket-ready. It will, of course, be very useful to have the Zondo investigators available to the NPA, but when will this happen to change the game?

Beyond the NPA, it is of course possible for SARS to do audits on a host of people who appear to have been beneficiaries of State Capture and Covid-19-related corruption. While these audits are done under the cloak of secrecy, the public is entitled to know in general terms that comprehensive audits of such beneficiaries of corruption, their families, trusts and companies are being undertaken. There is surely no more effective way to curb corruption than by use of the tax system; if in doubt, just look at the story of how the US government nabbed Al Capone.

That relatives of prominent politicians and public office bearers can in any way be involved in public procurement and tenders beggars belief. That there should be any delay in ensuring that this entire cohort are so precluded will only confirm the lack of seriousness in dealing with this pathology. And to the extent that there is reluctance, is it too much to expect that the strictures of The Public Management Act or the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities (in particular ss3, 4 and 5) not be fully invoked?

The judiciary is not immune from the charge that it is not fully vindicating the principle of accountability. While the Judicial Service Commission Act, understandably, needed to balance the principle of judicial accountability with the need to protect judges against vexatious and unsubstantiated complaints, there have been too many cases where serious charges of judicial misconduct have been dragged out for far too long. The leisurely pace at which the JSC appears to operate in this context is another example of the inability to meet the challenge of good governance.

Talking of good governance, it is high time for the first time ever in South Africa that a principle is implemented that clear proven incompetence in office, credible involvement — whether directly or indirectly — or errors of judgment that contribute to corrupt practices should be visited by dismissal. Without a zero-tolerance policy, no meaningful change will ever take place.

If the country gets to see some of these steps taken, it may begin to believe it is possible to commence the painful journey to a new consciousness and sense of accountability that Ramaphosa is referring to in his letter. Talk, but then do nothing, and it will not be long before we can no longer even contemplate the possibility of at least attempting to build a country based upon Ubuntu. DM

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