It is apposite to quote the late Kofi Annan on access to information: "Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family." Over the past week there were three public inquiries of significance running concurrently — into state capture, the governance of the SA Revenue Service under the stewardship of Tom Moyane, and Steinhoff.
It has become fashionable to roll one’s eyes at commissions of inquiry as if they serve some sort of nefarious end.
This newspaper has pointed out the high cost of these commissions. The conspiracy theorists will tell you on Twitter that they are part of one giant political cover-up.
More cogent is the argument that they consume vast resources that would be better spent on bringing the culprits to book in court.
The conspiracy theory is easy to dismiss. There is simply no way in which these commissions can be seen as advantageous to the perpetrators of state capture or the corporate money-men who enriched themselves through Steinhoff. These creatures prefer to operate in the shadows, their hands unseen and their minions working under cover. The last thing they want is the public ventilation of their ghastly goings-on before an eager and independent media that reports every word or broadcasts testimony live to the nation.
The second argument — that there ought to be prosecutions, not commissions — is made because of a genuine problem that besets the state: the collapse of the investigative and prosecutorial arms of the criminal justice system.
This collapse did not occur by accident. It was the result of a plan implemented with ruthless disregard for justice by former president Jacob Zuma and his cronies. The aim was twofold — to inoculate Zuma against prosecution on the hundreds of counts of fraud and corruption he might face and to prevent those looting the state from being brought to book.
Zuma nearly succeeded. But he was eventually checked and removed from office, and he has been charged.
There is an effort under way to rebuild the credibility of the prosecution service, the Hawks and the police, a process that could be undertaken with more vigour. But this has nothing to do with commissions of inquiry, which serve an entirely different purpose, one they are serving very well. Commissions are there to lay bare in great detail before the public the machinations of those who have failed our democracy. They provide information, which is the lifeblood of democracy. And, once they have exhaustively explored their subjects, they make recommendations.
Armed with the information placed before them, the public is better informed and more effective defenders of democracy.
Should the government not adhere to the recommendations, the commissions are empowered to punish the politicians who fall short. The problem is that Zuma has abused commissions of inquiry, such as that into the arms deal, by neutering them through prohibitive terms of reference and then packing them with people unsuitable to conduct the sort of sharp interrogation that is required to bring the full facts to light.
But the failure of the arms commission to bring Zuma to book — his financial adviser was, after all, jailed for bribing him to influence the deal — should not be used to smear the present commissions of inquiry.
Judges Raymond Zondo and Robert Nugent are allowing the public to witness the full and unfettered story of state capture by calling witnesses who have detailed and credible information on how this perversion of government took place.
To smear and discredit such inquiries only serves the purposes of the perpetrators of state capture, who would like nothing more than to discredit these commissions of inquiry so they might escape the consequences of their despicable deeds.
Information, as Annan said, is liberating. And this society needs more of it so it can pick up the pieces and move on from the Zuma era.