EDITORIAL: Decoding SA’s culture of impunity
This impunity problem starts right at home
First it was the planeload of Gupta wedding guests from India. Then Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. Now Zimbabwe’s Grace Mugabe jets off from the same Waterkloof military air base, leaving behind only a minor diplomatic skirmish.
This lineup of unsavoury characters illustrates the problem that besets the modern Zuma-era SA: the growing culture of impunity.
Mugabe’s flight last week was only made possible by the fact that SA government officials allowed it; as they allowed al-Bashir’s escape. This impunity problem starts right at home.
If you need any more evidence, consider the rogues’ gallery of people who, in the past week, just didn’t bother pitching up for proceedings they were legally obliged to attend.
First, former communications minister Faith Muthambi didn’t bother arriving at parliament’s public service committee because she didn’t "recognise" the chair, Makhosi Khoza. Five other ANC MPs followed her lead. Then, former SABC executive Hlaudi Motsoeneng didn’t bother pitching up at the labour court to explain why he shouldn’t pay the costs of eight journalists he dismissed from the broadcaster, who were rehired.
With such examples, no wonder Mugabe didn’t bother arriving at the magistrate’s court to answer assault charges, and later fled. It illustrates a cavalier disregard for the law.
Tracing how a culture of impunity develops in a country, The American Prospect magazine said there is "always a seemingly higher rationale for failing to prosecute crimes by the powerful or by subordinates who enjoy their protection: the collateral damage to the community, the nation, or the world would be too great".
So, officials justify not acting against Mugabe or al-Bashir because of the "diplomatic fallout"; the officials who should hold the powerful to account end up using a form of "moral calculus", that leads to them to weight up the collateral damage of the action they should take. But rarely do they consider that when they don’t act, "those who commit abuse come to believe in their own privilege and entitlement", as the magazine says.
When social development minister Bathabile Dlamini called a press briefing last week, but was then two hours late, it was this entitlement that was glaringly evident. In the case of Muthambi and Motsoeneng, they believe they are protected, presumably by the man who best embodies the phrase "impunity": President Jacob Zuma.
It is Zuma we have to thank for the ANC MP who swears an oath to the country that disrespects its parliament, just as we have him to thank for the culture which allows lowly traffic officers to shake down motorists for a "cooldrink". But then, back in 2009, Zuma also swore an oath, and look where that got us.
In theory, legal accountability should be a check on this culture of impunity. But Zuma has gutted the law-enforcement authorities by appointing lapdogs like Shaun Abrahams, so there’s no chance of that.
This is why the Gupta family seems to fear nothing from the daily chronicle of wrongdoing that has spilt from the leaked e-mails.
In the absence of legal accountability, you would hope that personal moral beliefs would enforce a form of accountability. People should have enough shame to account.
Yet even this doesn’t happen. Mduduzi Manana might have resigned as deputy minister after assaulting two women, yet he thinks nothing of continuing to represent the ANC in parliament.
It illustrates that Zuma’s presidency has had a deep and damaging effect on SA’s psyche. Unravelling that will take a long time.