30 Apr 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
A vigorous press routinely reports corruption and, with an equal resoluteness, little of it is interdicted or punished, writes Tony Leon
DURING the 1990s, the hinge years of South Africa’s democratic transition, Bill Keller was based in Johannesburg as the correspondent for the New York Times. He recently revisited, in the pages of the New York Review of Books at least, our republic and penned a pithy and acute diagnosis of South Africa now and then. He described our story as simultaneously "dispiriting and inspiring".
The Freedom Day weekend provided evidence of both aspects of this paradox.
On Friday, the Mail & Guardian unveiled yet another corruption scandal — it’s almost like a weekly horror series of skulduggery in high places — concerning the alleged looting of parastatal PetroSA, and not for the first time either. My mind cast back to the 2004 general election, when the same parastatal was used as the vehicle for gross overpayments to a politically connected supplier, who promptly paid over the proceeds of his enrichment to the campaign coffers of the ruling party. Then as now, action was promised but no cuffing and charging the culprits actually happened. Thus when, on Friday, the present board airily promised to take action "to the extent that any impropriety has taken place", readers are cautioned not to hold their breath.
Keller cited as one of the crowning ironies of the new South Africa the fact that a vigorous press routinely reports corruption and, with an equal resoluteness, little of it is either interdicted or punished. Freedom of speech coexists with impunity to plunder. But had the Protection of State Information Bill been enacted in its original 2009 form, it is doubtful that even the reporting of the PetroSA saga would ever have seen the light of day.
The final passage in Parliament last week of a watered-down version of this legislation is proof of the worth of an engaged push-back by a vast sway of civil society and opposition forces acting in concert — and, to be perfectly fair, evidence of a governing party prepared to listen and act on many of the objections.
An even more ancient aphorism came to me on Freedom Day, Saturday, when the aircraft from Cape Town touched down at OR Tambo International Airport. Germany’s "Iron Chancellor", Otto von Bismarck, apparently once said: "If you enjoy eating sausages, don’t watch them being made." Undoubtedly, this has highly contemporary relevance to another current scandal, the labelling and mislabelling of our local boerewors and other meats. But Bismarck was referring to less savoury aspects of the political process. And it is a useful reminder of just what a close-run thing today’s freedom and democracy, with all their imperfections and slippages, were at the time of its bloody birth.
For example, 19 years ago to the day of our arrival, when OR Tambo International was plain Jan Smuts Airport, it was the site of the last gasp of the right-wing violence that promised to destroy our new democracy before it had even taken root — a car bomb rocked the airport, the last of a series of fatal urban explosions.
It was so loud that we even heard it at my polling station far away in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg.
"The struggle of memory against forgetting" was how author Milan Kundera described the struggle of man against power. It is also a very powerful antidote to the cynicism and ennui that beset even the most engaged local, small "d" democrats.
But then I arrived at a site of inspiration. Bobby Godsell and James Motlatsi had gathered 100 patrons at the Johannesburg Country Club to sign The Citizens Charter. Their own improbable partnership tells its own story — they first met as hostile adversaries across the great divide, which then and now separated mine management and their striking workforce. And their early encounter in 1987 took place when bad politics — South Africa was in the midst of a state of emergency — conjoined adversarial labour relations.
And yet, in the intervening 25 years, they have forged a durable partnership and they summoned us on Saturday to partner in spearheading "active citizenship".
In a word, Godsell described the time as ripe, amid all the doom and gloom gripping the land, for people "to leave the spectators’ bench and to get onto the playing field".
It is easy to dismiss the initiative as a sort of high-minded do-goodism.
Yet the very simplicity and practicality of the charter and the impressive (excluding this columnist) and hugely diverse patrons who enrolled for it, and who pitched up on Saturday afternoon, offer all South Africans the chance to do some good by doing right; from volunteering for a modest four hours of community service a month to being responsible and law-abiding citizens.
Before a feeling of hopeless indifference sweeps away the majestic promise of April 27 1994, and some of the grim events that went before it, read the charter, sign it and join in — www.citizens.za.com.
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