Collapse of ethics in public life: how do we rebuild? (Polity, 15 May 2017, reprinted in Daily Maverick and



Many writers have remarked on the qualities possessed by Brian Molefe, that he had gained experience in the Treasury and other institutions or organisations that would have fitted him for a range of high ranking jobs, nationally and internationally. He chose instead to put his skills at the service of the Guptas and in fact prostrate himself at their feet and that of Jacob Zuma and do whatever they required, much of this being of doubtful legality.

In saying that Molefe has various qualities this is not to accept all the evaluations of what Molefe achieved for there are questions around whether or not his time at ESKOM was a success, as documented in Carol Paton’s 2016 analysis (

What is important to recognise is that the readiness of Brian Molefe to play fast and loose with legality is not at all exceptional in these times, for there are very many people who have traded their integrity in exchange for financial gain or some or other position acquired through serving powerful individuals. In some ways more shocking, there are many who were once very brave who have exchanged their sense of personal pride and dignity in order to hold one or other position. They have been prepared to defend Jacob Zuma over a range of issues where he was clearly misusing his office and taxpayers funds –some deploying great ingenuity to make a case, for what would later be found to be demonstrably false and in conflict with the constitution.

In the political context in which we presently exist speaking of integrity is not simply whether or not someone speaks the truth or can be trusted with funds, whether he or she will steal or falsify the books of a branch or region of an organisation in order to siphon off funds for private use. That is an element of what we identify as a lack of integrity. But what is specific to this period and by no means peculiar to South Africa is that the route to this dishonesty and acts that constitute a breach of trust happen within a context that embodies a patron-client relationship.

For patronage to emerge there must be individuals who hope to acquire the power (and need supporters) or do command the power to allocate positions or resources to others in exchange for their loyalty or support. That means that such potentially or already powerful individuals must be located or plan to be placed in a position to access resources. These may be resources of an organisation or Foundations or Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), the state, a State owned enterprise (SOE), a private company etc etc.

This is not a new phenomenon. It was also the case in exile when some individuals could secure better training or schooling or university opportunities than others, by virtue of their proximity to certain leaders. There were a range of other situations where some individuals or networks were placed in a way that enabled them to derive benefits that others did not receive or even do so at the expense of such individuals. The scale of these benefits was obviously of a much lower level than today though it was –perhaps- a form of tutelage for what we now see.

It was also the case, inside the country during the 1980s when some individuals accessed funds locally or from overseas and through these funds were able to secure the loyalty of other individuals. These individuals were often encouraged to form organisations with a particular orientation and those who possessed funds were able to determine whether or not organisations rose or fell, whether they had funding for hiring venues or paying transportation or could supply the food needed for delegates at one or other meeting or to print T shirts and influenced various other factors that determined whether or not an organisation survived on a sustainable basis.

The Thabo Mbeki presidency was characterised by patronage, though it generally did not converge with criminality or illegality to anything like the extent that is found today. It played itself out in appointments as well as the way some people were “in the know” of what the president wanted and others were not, those within the circle of influence being better prepared for or being part of decisions that were made.

At the time of the dismissal of Zuma as Deputy State President in 2005, leading to an upsurge of support for Zuma (culminating in his election victory at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference), some individuals who had linked their future with Thabo Mbeki decided either to continue with that relationship and in most cases these people lost or resigned from positions of power. Alternatively, there were many who saw the writing on the wall for Mbeki and decided to throw their lot in with the rising Jacob Zuma. Many of these individuals had appeared to be very close to Mbeki but they recognised that they could no longer benefit from that relationship and chose their own more or less lucrative survival.

Some others, like the leadership of the SACP and COSATU also disagreed with features of the Mbeki period, notably the Growth Economic and Redistribution macroeconomic policy (GEAR), referred to as the “1996 class project” and claimed to support the rise of Zuma on an ideological basis, as a way of remedying this conservative macroeconomic policy.

In contrast to Mbeki, SACP and COSATU leaders depicted Zuma as a person who was sympathetic to the poor and less secretive than they depicted Mbeki as being.

Many of these individuals knew very well that the basis on which they were advancing the candidacy of Zuma was false; that Zuma had withdrawn from the SACP in 1990, when -unlike in the period of exile- being in the leadership of the Communist Party was no longer prestigious or advantageous. There was no consistent pro-working class or people-centred orientation attaching to Zuma. In fact, until shortly before his dismissal by Mbeki their political and socio-economic orientations had been more or less similar. One of Zuma’s biographers Jeremy Gordin refers to Zuma and Mbeki being so close in their thinking that they were more or less “joined at the hip; they operated as a team and had for a long time”. (Zuma: a biography, 2008, p 56).

The SACP knew this better than most. What they did was use their then considerable ideological and moral powers to project Zuma as being what they knew he was not; so eager were they to get rid of Mbeki. This is what is known as fraudulent misrepresentation in the law of contract, that you sell a product on the basis of qualities that you know it does not possess.

It may also have been that some of the SACP and COSATU leaders understood the inauguration of a Zuma period as bringing benefits for themselves and indeed SACP and COSATU leaders have become ministers and deputy ministers in this period.

In visiting Zuma on us, these leaders endorsed or were complicit in Zuma’s hyper patriarchal and aggressive conduct in his rape trial and the militarism associated with his rule – the singing of Umshini Wam, a song of war as his “trademark song”, endorsing his ethnic chauvinism (100% Zulu) and numerous other features that ran counter to the very basis for forming the ANC (that is, eschewing “tribalism”) and in the case of the SACP, gender policies that had become an important part of its identity under Chris Hani.

The SACP leadership now calls for the resignation of Zuma and says it was wrong in supporting him in 2007. But it is not clear that it has articulated all the reasons why it was wrong –not simply that he has turned out to be corrupt. Unless there is full awareness of the violent, hyperpatriarchal and dishonest character of this period we do not learn all the lessons.

Rebuilding the ethical qualities of South African public life will take time. It is both an intellectual question, deciding what is and is not ethical and a psychological one, deciding whether or not one will act out what we understand to be correct. We have to recognise and choose whether or not to act ethically. Let us hope that likeminded people can drive a process whereby ethical conduct is revived as a desirable and necessary basis for conducting our social and political life. It may be that if the proposed “national dialogues” take off and involve people from all sections of our society, in a meaningful way, that they can play a role.






FROM Inside Apartheid’s Prison: Handling the courts with pride




INSIDE APARTHEID PRISON COVER FRONT.jpgThere is a legal saying to the effect that every person has his or her day in court. If convicted, a criminal usually presents a plea in mitigation and tries to explain why the crime has been committed and to plead for leniency.

There were some cases in which political prisoners had followed this course of action – in line with conventional legal cases – possibly, to obtain a lower sentence, or because they were motivated by bitterness towards their comrades. …

In general, however, or in most cases, political prisoners avoided the mode of legal defence used in conventional cases. Their court appearances were part of a wider ideological battle. And by standing up against the state, the political fighter was ranged against the authorities in a way that was quite different from an individual offender, who had simply fallen foul of laws that are generally accepted as being in the interests of society.

The individual offender tried to escape punishment in terms of the existing norms of society. Unlike the political prisoner, he or she is not challenging the wider social order or the norms upon which it is based.

Different judges might cast varying glosses on the law, but in their oath of office had undertaken to administer justice according to the law. But the actions of political prisoners were directed against that very law – or, at least, those parts of it that we regarded as unjust and could not accept for wider moral reasons.

Thus, it was not surprising that judges and magistrates did not embrace our concept of justice. Instead, they described our actions as ones that no civilised state or authority could tolerate – equating our challenge to, and disregard of, the apartheid laws with a challenge to the very idea of law.

A politically motivated defence tended to be prejudicial to the personal interests of the accused. It made it harder to get out of jail and may have increased the length of our sentences. It tended to make certain types of legal defence impossible. In some cases, in order to safeguard our organisations or security, we had to conceal some of what might have freed us from jail.

There were some things I just could not say, even if they reduced my sentence, because they may have reflected negatively on the liberation movement. I first experienced this while an accused person; and then again in the 1980s, when applying for release from detention during the state of emergency. To some extent, we sometimes aided the process of legal conviction because we were unable to advance arguments to free us.

Appearing in court as a representative of the liberation movement meant we had a duty to engage the courts and challenge the system under which we were tried. That meant attempting to get the lowest possible sentence, or to be released. But the courtroom was also a place where we could be heard, albeit to a limited degree – a place where we could make a public statement in defence of the liberation struggle.

Therefore, I could not align myself with the liberation movement to just a limited degree, and dissociate myself from ‘less tasteful’ policies, such as the use of force.

Some people, in the loneliness of their prison cells, might have found this course attractive – and selectively rejected liberation movement policies that were harder to explain in court.

When you do have your day in court, you want people to at least understand why you acted as you did.

This meant, in the case of people involved with the South African liberation movement, rejecting the labels that the regime wanted to attach to us – such as ‘terrorists,’ and so on. We also wanted the fact of torture to be acknowledged, and that we had experienced various other losses, while undertaking political activities that had brought us no gain.

In many cases, people went to jail without the truth ever emerging. Deploying a maze of legalisms and moralising, courts often de-legitimised what freedom fighters had done.

We knew we had broken the law, but many judges denied the reasoning behind our actions, and thus allied themselves with the reasoning of the apartheid regime.


Why I support the “National Dialogue” (Polity, 8 May 2017, reprinted in Daily Maverick and on


Many people recognise that South Africa has experienced a multi-faceted crisis for some years. One of the reasons for the nationwide protests calling for President Jacob Zuma to step down is a feeling that many people have that not only Zuma but also most institutions of state have failed them.  They sense that no remedy can be expected from most of these institutions.   The trust bestowed on their representatives has been betrayed in countless ways –over Marikana, Nkandla, the social grants crisis and the repeated misuse of public monies through state officials and state owned entities.

It would be a mistake to believe that people do not understand that it is not a problem of one individual alone, significant and disastrous as the Zuma presidency has been. They know that his comrades in leadership and parliament spent many years defending his wrongdoing.  The people of this country have no reason to hand out blank cheques to anyone.

The presence of so many people protesting in the streets, booing at public events and in other ways, is a sense that people want to wield their own power directly-at this point in time- in order to remedy what has gone wrong. What has happened until now-in public protest- has been remarkable but it can only be sustainable-as a vehicle for change- if it is part of a strategy and comprises a vision that is embraced by wide sections of society.

What happens beyond the removal or departure of Zuma needs to be articulated within the framework of a vision behind which people are mobilised and organised.  There needs to be a vision in order to strengthen accountability. But the people must also be present in order to avoid a return to the “passive observer” status of citizens that has been one of the weaknesses of post-apartheid South African democracy, not only in the Zuma period. Their role has been to periodically cast their votes and otherwise to simply observe politics.   It is important that we revisit the scope of what constitutes our democracy in order to ensure an active citizenry, a people organised in a range of ways: in their communities, work places, professions, faith based communities, in business, as students, women and teachers, amongst other sectors in order to raise problematic features persisting in various aspects of their lives.

In building a vision and an organisational framework for realising it, we could work with “purist” ideas and unite a small group regarded as or self-styled as a vanguard or revolutionary organisation. Such a grouping, relatively large or small could advance ideas that they believe are necessary but by definition exclude the power of numbers of those who may not accept or wholly accept such a purist approach.

Those who do not wish to be absorbed into this “vanguard” and those unwilling to compromise may nevertheless share unhappiness with the present conditions.  They may want a return to legality, end of corruption and reducing or ending inequality, albeit with many differences of viewpoint on how and how far to move on such issues.

The National Dialogue, advanced last week by former presidents and national foundations, named after heroic figures in South African liberation history could become a vehicle for advancing goals and winning people over, from wherever they may be located. There are no short cuts, like damning the constitution, when it has been repeatedly demonstrated that it is not the constitutional negotiations or the constitution itself that has prevented land distribution but lack of political will.  (See former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke and former Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs:  If that is the case, for those who want land redistribution or other steps, including nationalisation, which may advance social transformation, rhetoric around compromises cannot substitute for popularising and organising around claims, to build the support to win demands, in order to create the necessary “political will”.

Some of the greatest revolutionaries were that not only because they took up arms or fought the enemy of the oppressed, but also that they recognised when there was a change of terrain, when there was an opportunity for peaceful resolution of conflicts and achieving goals.  They then struggled equally hard to make that peace work.  That was true of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and that was also true of Nelson Mandela, both willing to be insurrectionists when required.  But both recognised when it was necessary to change approaches and build what could be achieved without further warfare, whose effects were experienced most harshly by the poorest sections of the population.

No revolutionary can operate with a notion of “no compromise” for the best way of advancing a long-term goal may necessitate compromise at any particular moment.  Whether or not the compromise is necessary must be assessed on the basis of the ethical and strategic principles that may well equally motivate continuation of war or other apparently more militant approaches.  Sometimes one has to take a number of routes to reach a goal. Thus, in his Life of Galileo, Bertolt Brecht quotes Galileo as saying: “If there are obstacles the shortest line between two points may well be a crooked line.”

There are many people who may be cynical about this “National Dialogue” initiative.  The presence of FW de Klerk, the last apartheid president will anger many and already the EFF have voiced their –possibly qualified- rejection of the initiative primarily in relation to the presence of de Klerk (

Some will depict the presence of Thabo Mbeki as bitterness at his ousting, which saw the rise of Zuma to the presidency and Kgalema Motlanthe may also be depicted as motivated by resentment since he was defeated when contesting the ANC presidency with Zuma in 2012.  When one leaves the presidency one obviously has to handle one’s public interventions with care because one does not want what one says to be interpreted as attempts at “back seat driving” or to “rule from the grave” or continuing resentment at loss of power.  For that reason, we know that Mbeki and Motlanthe have been very cautious in making public statements. It is only in the last year or two that they have entered into public debate and criticised what is happening under the leadership of Zuma or discussed the potential options of MPs in the forthcoming parliamentary vote of no confidence in President Zuma.

They have done this with dignity and without entering into discussions over who should contest any position in the ANC or government. They have spoken on the basis of what they see as their responsibility to the country at large. They also see this as compatible with their loyalty to the ANC.

I support this initiative.  That does not mean that I see it as a static platform whose permutations, potential shape and direction have been finally decided by those who have initiated the dialogue.    In the dialogues, themselves it will be necessary to constantly advance a range of options that may enable the initiative itself to be broadened and deepened in accordance with the aspirations of the people of South Africa.

Certainly, this initiative may be seen as elite-driven. But it is up to other constituencies to grasp the opportunity to make this a truly national initiative by advancing and inserting their general and specific demands as part of an ongoing process aimed at defining the future.  They will also need to insist that the constituencies from which these demands derive are themselves physically present and that the notion of listening-in the dialogue- is in fact realised.