From the news desk

Civil society: scoring a coup on the arms deal, Ncgobo and Malema

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SOUTH AFRICAN civil society scored three important coups for the country recently. The judiciary and the media both survived challenges. And the multi-billion rand arms deal, something that has haunted us since the 1990’s, was given a new lease of life.

News that head of the Hawks, Anwar Dramat, had sent his people to meet European investigators is a dramatic about turn – especially after the unit had stated last year that further prospects of arms deal investigations were slim.

However, an admission by defence company SAAB of Sweden that its former British partner, BAE systems, had paid R24 million in bribes to South African officials has thrown new light on the case.

Already a victim of political cover-up, sleazy corporate suppression and legal obstructionism, the arms deal’s ultimate fate is inextricably linked to both the openness of the media and the autonomy of the judiciary.

For sans an independent judiciary and a free press, communities can have no measure of public oversight, or accountability, on things such as shady arms deals. When justice and information become compromised, nations become tied to the coat-tails of their political masters.

The point is that a functioning democracy is a human system, and if unchecked, will be continually vulnerable to human frailty. Correction will always be fundamental to the democratic process.

Public vigilance is the most vital element of clean government, and in South Africa, it is played out against the backdrop of the Constitution. In a functioning democracy, a judicial system separated from the state is the one that protects its citizens most effectively.

With regards to the judiciary we had the decision of Chief Justice Sandile Ncgobo not to accept an extension of his term at the Constitutional Court.

Chief Justice Ncgobo had initially agreed to the extension of his term. But after public outcry that his re-appointment via the President’s office – and not parliament – would be unconstitutional, he wisely decided to step down.

Saying that he feared impending litigation would compromise the integrity of his office and the judiciary as a whole, he said he had to “protect the office of the Chief Justice”.

His resignation closed the gate on the alarming precedent of President Zuma appointing judges. It also pre-empted unsavoury civic action highlighting the bungling of the President’s men, as well as the prospect of the Chief Justice being thrown out of his own court.

The coup for the media was when the City Press newspaper was able to successfully defend an urgent interdict in the South Gauteng High Court.

The interdict was to prevent it from publishing details of a secret trust fund used by ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, to bankroll a lifestyle not proportionate to his party salary. According to the report, Malema had used the trust fund to accept monies in return for political favours.

Judge Colin Lamont found that City Press’s story was in the public interest. Malema was a public figure, and South Africans were entitled to full disclosure on the matter of high-profile personalities.

But whilst developments in the arms deal and the Ncgobo story were distinguished more by principle than personality, the Malema saga has been defined more by personality than principle. And because of that, there are some important caveats.

This is due to Julius Malema being a larger-than-life figure, which makes him a soft target. As a reckless populist he is easy to hate, easy to like and easy to lampoon; with him there appears to be no middle ground.

For Afriforum, a white Afrikaner organisation, Malema falls into the “easy to hate” category due to his singing of “Kill the Boer” – and it is they who’ve laid charges of corruption against him with the Hawks.

In terms of his Ratanang Family Trust named after his 5 year-old son, Malema is the symptom (some would even say a victim) of a far greater malaise: the virus of money and cronyism that has so badly infected the ANC’s ranks.

Malema’s statements to the Mail and Guardian that people don’t care about his money, but more his political conscience, is merely reflective of the arrogant materialism of his seniors; people who years ago lost touch with the grinding poverty of ANC voters, 60% of whom a Markinor poll reveals are unemployed.

Malema’s further justification that he is a private citizen with no access to taxpayer’s money reveals, in a bizarre Freudian way, that it’s okay to take money from elsewhere as long as it’s not government.

But in the heat of legal battle will Malema’s followers, quick to rise to victimisation because of Afriforum, be allowed to remember this?

In Malema’s case the frustrating thing is that the lines between politics and law will be blurred. Or, as political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi points out, politics will enter the stage “dressed in drag” and “disguised as all sorts of noble intentions”.

Or to put it another way: if Malema stands in the dock, will he reduce his appearance to a political circus? Will t-shirted supporters, supplied with a free lunch, be ululating before the television cameras like they did at Zuma’s rape trial?

The other drawback, due to the inevitable glare of publicity, could be the further diminution of national debate on poverty, job creation and wealth distribution – something to which Malema has contributed only kindergarten clichés and virulent hate-speech.

But when all is said and done, the ensuing investigation by the Hawks and the process of law must be allowed to follow its natural course. Malema, like any South African citizen, is innocent until proven guilty.

The triumph here is not the possible humiliation of a public figure, but rather the fact that the media – unfettered by the Protection of Information Bill – has been allowed to shine a light in a dark room, and that officials such as Malema have to be held accountable for what they do.

Pitfalls aside, it should send a resounding message to corrupt and greedy officials that if the guppies can be caught, so can the big fish too.

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