Postscript to Corruption: A fine balance of forces

Patrick Laurence re-appraises the situation in the light of new events and concludes it is time for decisive action.

Time waits for no man or woman, least of all journalists scurrying along in a vain bid to keep pace with fast moving events while honouring deadlines that are all but immovable.

The arms deal saga, and the suspicions that it is contaminated by corruption and that it, in turn, may have contaminated high-ranking members of government, is no exception. Since the article on corruption in the present issue of Focus was completed there have been several new developments of which cognisance should be taken.

The most notable of these developments are:

  • The sending by the Scorpions of 35 questions to deputy president Jacob Zuma as part of their investigation into allegations that he solicited a R500 000 protection fee from the French armaments company, Thales, and publication of the questions in the Sunday Times soon thereafter.
  • The angry response from Zuma, in which he implicitly accused the Scorpions and director of public prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, of leaking the questions to the Sunday Times and of pursuing the investigation of the allegations against him in a manner which was unfair and prejudicial to his rights and interests.
  • The attack on Ngcuka by ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe, in which he accused Ngcuka of conducting the investigation as though he were directing a Hollywood movie or writing a script with political intrigue as its leitmotif (and in which he simultaneously cast aspersions on the patriotism of the Democratic Alliance for its persistent interrogation of all developments in relation to the arms deal).
  • The placing of the future of the Scorpions on the national agenda, thereby foreshadowing its metamorphosis from an independent component of the National Prosecuting Authority to a specialised but subordinate unit of the South African Police Service.

Each of these developments is fraught with serious implications for South Africa, as well as the ANC, which, with the next general election less than year off, has had to contain the centrifugal forces within its ranks unleashed by the investigation into Zuma's financial affairs.

From a national perspective perhaps the most disturbing scenario is one in which the Scorpions are deprived of their independence and subject to the direction of the SAPS national commissioner. The Scorpions are the most visible indication that the government is serious in its declared commitment to excise corruption wherever it is found to exist, and to punish whoever is responsible, however important or powerful he or she may be. Curtailment of their independence has the capacity to reinforce the disturbing penchant for corruption in the new South Africa at the expense of the will and ability of government to contain and eventually reduce it to minuscule proportions.

The fine balance referred in the Focus article has already been tipped in an adverse direction by the light sentences imposed on Tony Yengeni and Mosiuoa Lekota by the ANC disciplinary committee (Yengeni has been suspended as an ANC member but his suspension has itself been suspended, while Lekota has been fined a relatively paltry R5 000). The balance has been further upset by the anticipated resignation of former transport minister Mac Maharai as a director of FirstRand after an investigation ordered by FirstRand into allegations that he accepted gifts and money from a businessman who was awarded lucrative contracts while he headed the ministry.

What is required is a rapid, surgically precise investigation into allegations against Zuma that have already been allowed to circulate for three years, to the chagrin of the deputy president and the disadvantage of South Africa. If detailed scrutiny of Zuma's financial affairs shows that there is legally speaking a prima facie case for him to answer, he must be indicted in a court of law as quickly as is practical.

Corruption is a cancer that destroys society. It must be treated with the same urgency as cancer per se is. The moment for the political equivalent of microscopic examination, and, if need be, remedial surgery, is at hand.