Friday, May 11, 2012

It's time to let our leaders know they've gone too far

Everyone who follows South African politics with any enthusiasm knew that 2012 would be an interesting year, but with seven months to go before Mangaung, "interesting" has taken on an oriental connotation.

Apparently, "may you live in interesting times" is not really a Chinese curse but, whoever is responsible, we do seem to have been so cursed this year.

Now, with the official laundering of Lieutenant-General Richard Mdluli's record and reputation and the possibility that he may be in line to become the top cop, I fear we have moved from interesting to extremely dangerous.

Just about everyone who is privileged to have this sort of space to write in has tried to sound the alarm about Mdluli's return as crime intelligence chief after a long suspension on unresolved charges ranging from kidnapping and murder to corruption and fraud.

In a country where corruption, nepotism and political manipulation make the news almost every day, writers are running out of ways to signal the depth of their alarm at this development.

Business Day editor Peter Bruce took the rare step this week - a newspaperman's cris de coeur - of writing a front page editorial opinion on the topic.

Many newspapers have reported on Mdluli's alleged letter to President Jacob Zuma in November claiming the charges against him were the work of hostile conspirators and promising: "In the event that I come back to work, I will assist the president to succeed next year."

There was then and is now only one thing on Zuma's agenda this year, and that is to get himself re-elected as president of the ANC and guardian-in-chief of the feeding trough.

There is also a growing body of new evidence that, in addition to the charges against Mdluli, he abused previously unreported police funds for private purposes.

Glynnis Breytenbach, a deputy director of public prosecutions who had filed an extensive report on Mdluli's activities, has been suspended, allegedly on unrelated charges, and has been shot at.

As head of crime intelligence, Mdluli has the keys to the skeleton cupboard. He knows or can find out who among his friends and foes is seeing, talking to, sleeping with or giving business to which other of his friends and foes.

According to DA spokesman Dianne Kohler Barnard, his answer to one of her parliamentary questions revealed he is also the only person with the power to authorise phone taps, which means he can listen in on anyone, and no one can listen in on him.

Seen in isolation, the unexplained withdrawal of such a range of charges against him, his return to such a powerful position, his alleged crude pledge of a political payback and rumours he might become our commissioner of police, are cause for alarm and despondency.

But coming on top of the Zuma government's broad assault on the independence of our watchdog institutions and the abuse of the state's influence over business, they are nothing short of terrifying.

We have seen Willie Hofmeyr, the single most committed and successful corruption -buster in our history, fired as head of the Special Investigating Unit and replaced by a series of unsuitable successors.

We have seen the independence of the judiciary challenged and the credibility of the Judicial Service Commission dented by the rejection of many of the country's best jurists as candidates for the bench, and the politically assisted appointment of an inappropriate chief justice.

Provinces, cities and towns have been saddled with unqualified and often tainted administrators placed to tilt the political balance in Zuma's favour with no thought of the consequences of their inaction or incompetence in office.

The government has spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of rands trying to impose flawed secrecy legislation that will undermine the free flow of information despite overwhelming evidence that it is popular only with the security establishment.

Business worth billions has been funnelled to friends and relatives of the president and his clique, sometimes, as in the case of the Aurora mine, at direct cost to the lives of the workers the government purports to serve.

We have reason to be very worried that the race for the power that will be decided in Mangaung will fatally damage the democratic state so carefully built by people, including many in the ANC, who are now silent.

But we do not have to accept what is happening. We are still a democratic state and a free nation.

The public response to the Protection of State Information Bill and to the imposition of punitive tolls on Gauteng highways shows South Africans are finding the voice that earned them their freedom.

Though often inappropriately destructive, the actions we call service delivery protests show South Africans have not given up hope for better things.

It is clear that Zuma and his inner circle feel only contempt for the people who do the work and pay the nation's bills and for those who wish they could.

It is time to drop the constraints of respect for authority and to let the ANC leaders who either lead or allow the pillaging of our state know they have gone too far.

We don't need to wait for 2014 when we next get to vote. We can do it as we have in our response to censorship and excessive taxation. We can shout our opposition and we should.

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