20 Aug 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Although the National Party promoted an oppressive political system, it was not forgiving of its own members who looted public office for personal ends, writes Tony Leon
WHEN veteran Labour Party member of parliament Tony Benn retired from the House of Commons in 2001 after 50 years’ service, he quoted from a poem: "Though politicians dream of fame and hope to win a deathless name, Time strews upon them when they’ve gone the Poppy of oblivion." The recent death in Johannesburg of its one-time municipal boss and leader of the provincial opposition, Alf Widman, was saved from "oblivion’s Poppy" by a thoughtful obituary in the Sunday Times by Chris Barron. In it, he noted that Widman, who was later elected to Parliament, lost his seat in Hillbrow in 1987 by 87 votes.
In that election, PW Botha’s National Party (NP) juggernaut rolled over the rather mild Progressive Federal Party in a dozen of its heartland seats, with a slogan that chimed with the insecurity of its white electorate: "Reform: Yes! Surrender: No!"
But in the case of Widman’s loss, at least, it was more a result of cheating by his opponent rather than a change of heart by his voters. The NP candidate, Leon de Beer, crooked the corrupt postal vote system and got elected. But his tenure in Parliament was brief. Within two years he was convicted of 70 counts of electoral fraud and jailed, and, before he entered prison, was stripped of his seat and removed from his party caucus.
He was not alone in the rogue’s gallery of disgraced politicians from an era when the repression of apartheid was, on occasion, matched by the venality of some of its adherents. This weekend, a friend surprised guests at a dinner by opining that "we should erect statues to Hennie van der Walt and Pietie du Plessis". He was referring to two cabinet members of the same period who between them were sentenced to 19 years’ imprisonment for various counts of theft and fraud. The point my friend, himself no friend of the apartheid government, was making: their prominence in government and connections in high places did not shield them (or the crooked MP for Hillbrow) from disgrace, conviction and jail time.
The NP promoted and prosecuted a political system which oppressed and disfigured this country, and its security apparatus did far worse. But it was not so forgiving of its own members who looted public office for personal ends. And to the extent that it turned a blind eye, it did not interfere when the departments of justice and correctional services indicted and processed its members, some of them very prominent indeed.
Mention of Du Plessis’s name reminded me of a telephone call I received in mid-1994 from then-president Nelson Mandela. He told me that he was "seeking guidance and approval", as he put it, since he was "considering an early release from jail of former minister Pietie du Plessis".
I was struck by the fact that it was an African National Congress (ANC) president weighing this matter, although Du Plessis’s term in jail commenced on the watch of his own party president, FW de Klerk, who had not interfered in the matter at all. Du Plessis and Van der Walt were both in time released, the former dying a few years later.
In more recent times, few politicians either responsible or complicit for the billions pillaged from the public purse have been either prosecuted or even removed from party ranks. Tony Yengeni, one of the very select few, in August 2006 entered his brief and featherbedded jail cell spell with a hero’s send-off. The then speaker of Parliament, the very institution which he had defrauded, was conspicuously prominent in the cheering gallery. On his return from jail, Yengeni has hardly languished in either penury or obscurity. He was re-elected to the ANC executive and now heads its "political school", which, interestingly, is charged with instilling ethics in its members. He was arrested again last week, driving a Maserati, apparently in a state of intoxication. The disgraced minister of communications, Dina Pule, remains a Member of Parliament, and has yet to be prosecuted. The roll call goes on and on.
Alf Widman, who lived and died in conditions of modesty, was part of a generation of politicians who — whatever the deficiencies in their political philosophies — mostly regarded public service as a calling, not a get-rich-quick scheme. In his time, service on a city council was strictly a part-time affair and the rewards, such as they were, were generally unrelated to either the perks of office or the winnings to be had from bending the tender system.
And for those who crossed the line, such as the two NP ministers, there was always the chance, quite a good one then, of an exemplary punishment being meted out.
We should hardly mourn the loss of that political system. But in celebrating the democracy which replaced it, we should not avert our gaze from the undertow that came in its wake: the rapaciousness of public life and the lack of consequences for leading transgressors. Unaddressed, these might soon capsize the ship of state itself.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA