In April 2019, the Gauteng high court set aside a decision by former president Jacob Zuma to fire the then police commissioner, General Bheki Cele, seven years earlier.
The decision in 2019 pertaining to the 2012 firing was for all intents and purposes academic. Cele was no longer police commissioner. Zuma had been replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa as the number one citizen of this country.
If you missed the news, don’t be hard on yourself. It was reported almost fleetingly, as though it was an obligatory matter that news organisations would rather not have reported.
Around the time (2015) Cele was fighting to clear his name, a certain former deputy national police commissioner, Lieutenant General Hamilton Hlela, pleaded guilty to charges of corruption and receiving kickbacks in the Specialised Commercial Crimes Court in Pretoria, and was ordered by the court to repay the state the amount of R76,203.
Hlela had been thought of as something of a national hero and was the star witness in a 2012 enquiry into Cele’s involvement in a controversial R1.6-billion police lease deal. His testimony helped sway the opinion that Cele had acted corruptly or at least wrongly in the process of awarding the lease contract for police headquarters.
Why does this matter now, you may ask?
The Zondo commission report is out. The South African tendency to latch on the headlines and ignore the news itself could once again cause facts to be lost in the midst of the excitement over the report.
It is not beyond the realms of the imagination that men and women will be named, shamed and accused for merely having their names mentioned by the deputy chief justice in his much-anticipated report.
As already stated, it took many years for Cele to find vindication and by the time it came, it seemed an almost futile bid. I say “almost” because clearing one’s name is perhaps one of the most generous gifts one can give oneself.
Please do not get me wrong. Those who need to be prosecuted should be prosecuted. And if found guilty, they should be sentenced to the harshest punishment allowed by law. The looting of state funds is not a victimless crime.
It is because of these miscreants that the housing list is longer than it should have been. State fund looting is the reason why 25-year-old Mudzanani Humbelani of Tshitomboni village, outside Thohoyandou in Limpopo, was snatched by a crocodile at the Nandoni Dam while washing her laundry there on New Year’s day, instead of doing this at a tap at home.
It is responsible for the rolling electricity blackouts that have become the norm in South Africa. I could go on and on, but I trust that you get my drift.
That said, we must be careful of using the Zondo commission report to launch a kangaroo court where reputations and even livelihoods would be lost due to merely being mentioned in the report.
The law must take its course. It is not and cannot be the end of the story if an individual’s behaviour was found wanting by Judge Raymond Zondo. It still requires the courts of law to play their role in deciding the guilt or otherwise of anyone.
Politicians will use every opportunity to use a mention in the Zondo report to smear their rivals, sometimes in intra-party rivalries.
The media has a role to play here.
Far too often we hear and read of accusations that a certain individual is “corrupt” or “dodgy”, without care having been taken to understand what the exact charge is.
Sometimes, due to the context and power dynamics at play, some people are likely to find themselves involved in questionable acts because they were foot soldiers in battles that were not theirs.
Once again, this is not to suggest that “I was just following orders” is a valid legal argument. Just so that there is no confusion: it is not.
Still, it is important to appreciate the power dynamics at play that cause otherwise good professionals to carry out what they know is not entirely in the rule book, but feel forced to do because they fear losing their jobs.
There are many ways of describing what the Zondo commission was intended to achieve. It is fair to say that one of those would be to allow South Africa to look at its soul and where possible, make amends.
To destroy people’s careers, businesses and reputations just because they were mentioned in the report without affording such people the benefit of their day in a court of law would serve to confirm the view among some that Judge Zondo was presiding over a decorated kangaroo court.
It would be unfair on individuals as it would undermine the intention behind establishing the commission, and it would be a setback for the culture of accountability it sought to establish. DM/MC