Former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

Et tu, Brute?" — meaning "Even you, Brutus?" or "You too, Brutus?" — has come to be associated with betrayal by those we trusted most.

William Shakespeare presents these as the last words of Roman emperor Julius Caesar, spoken upon noticing that his friend and protégé Brutus is among those who have fatally stabbed him.

It is an expression of the pain and shock we feel on realising that those we trusted with our lives, or with something precious, have gone behind our backs to betray us.

I got a sense of this sentiment in the reaction to former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene’s disclosure to the Zondo commission about meeting the Guptas at their Saxonworld home several times prior to his removal from office in December 2015 — and his apology for previously lying about his association with the family.

I believe talk-show host JJ Tabane’s disclosure that he worked with erstwhile communications minister Faith Muthambi invoked the same feeling of betrayal.

Legally and morally we are entitled to react as we did. Section 195 of the constitution requires employees of the state to operate with the highest level of professional ethics. Lying certainly doesn’t meet that burden.

For the public, the inquiry will remain incomplete until we know the reasons for Nene’s betrayal. Was he confronted with an ethical dilemma?

If so, what was it and was his choice made in the interest of himself or the public?

A moment for reflection

We also need to examine our reaction: is our wounded response strategic or parochial?

Is a punitive reaction to betrayal resonant with our desire to get to the truth about state capture?

That these individuals betrayed our trust during the most vulnerable time of our nation since the struggle days seems unquestionable. But is a punitive reaction resonant with our desire to get to the truth about state capture?

I’m not convinced; I’m concerned that such a reaction will discourage future self-disclosure.

My years of training and work as an investigator taught me that leads are the key to successful investigations, and whistleblowers are a source of such leads. Indeed, most of our investigations into improper or criminal conduct in state affairs, such as corruption and fraud, commenced because of whistle-blowing to the media, political parties or the public protector.

Another key source of information is self-disclosure. Usually this occurs once the person concerned has been implicated in an investigation — albeit often as an accessory rather than a key perpetrator.

Prosecutorial authorities globally use self-disclosure to probe criminal activity and, in particular, to net the big fish. The only case I know of in which the big fish was allowed to go free in exchange for disclosure implicating the small fish was that of former police commissioner Jackie Selebi. Drug lord Glenn Agliotti was traded for Selebi, who though superior in the criminal justice system was a small fish in the value chain of the Agliotti "mafia".

But back to Nene. I wonder if one of the reasons people want him — and those, like him, who betrayed their trust — to "burn at the stake" is retribution. They would like these individuals to experience the hurt they caused through aiding and abetting wrongdoing, wittingly or not.

I was hounded as a result of the state capture project. In fact, the mighty thrust of British PR firm Bell Pottinger’s "white monopoly capital" dead cat focused on me, personally, and my office. I was attacked through a persistent media campaign, including by social media bots; lies were manufactured; pseudo-political party Black First Land First camped at the offices of the public protector for virtually the entire state capture investigation; and my staff were harassed.

But I have tried not to react to the apparent betrayal. What is important, I believe, is a response that fosters truth, justice and the public interest. I honestly believe the "Et tu, Brute?" response may satisfy our parochial need for retribution at the expense of our strategic need for truth and justice.