Thursday, February 19, 2009

The ANC and Niehaus- Where does this confusion come from?

Politics is ninety percent perception. This is considered accepted wisdom. The messages that political parties send out in the run-up to the elections thus become crucial as they compete for the public vote.

With just ten weeks to go before the elections, the National Assembly has concluded its session this week freeing Members of Parliament to campaign across the country.

Those at the coalface of every political party will be under enormous pressure to make the best possible impression in the public mind. Besides the policies of each party, citizens will make decisions based on the extent to which they can trust the individuals associated with that party.

The exposure of the ANC’s Carl Niehaus could not have come at a more inopportune time for his party. In a short space of time this year, he has become the public face of the organisation eclipsing his team mate, Jessie Duarte who had become the spokesperson post-Polokwane. He has confessed to a string of activities that point to him being an individual of extremely weak character. Not only has he acknowledged forging the signatures of four Gauteng MECs while he was running the Guateng Economic Development Agency(Geda), but has left behind a string of bad debt and broken promises made to people who say they have lost thousands of rands. Further disclosures continue to come to the fore.

While some in the ANC say they had no conclusive knowledge of his past conduct, they do admit that there were rumours doing the rounds in the organisation. They could be excused for believing that the stories being spread were a consequence of intense office politics and had no real basis in fact.

However, there were those who knew more. Surely they cannot say they did not know that Niehaus had certain tendencies that could discredit the organisation. The present Gauteng Premier, Paul Mashatile, had some idea that this man was untrustworthy. Then there were all those whom he borrowed money from. One has to assume that they did not know the extent of his borrowing but it was a talking point in some circles.

The concern here is not that Carl Niehaus is a disturbed individual. This sadly is his problem and the problem of his family. The concern is that the ANC could have appointed him to such a crucial position. Surely there are many smart young people who could have done the job? It brings to mind the irrepressible Parks Mankahala who at 30 years of age became spokesperson for Nelson Mandela. With a good support team, he became one of this country’s most admired media spokespersons and will be remembered for his skill and flair.

The concern too is that both his response and the ANC’s response to the disclosures were not unequivocal. He did the right thing by offering his resignation but then left the door open for his organisation to decide. The secretary-general of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, was hesitant. If he had understood that politics is ninety percent about perception, he would have realised that “looking after” Niehaus was not his immediate priority. His immediate priority was to protect the interests of his organisation so that the public could trust him.

This insistence that the ANC looks after its own is erroneous. It is not looking after its own. There are countless activists and members who have made enormous contributions all over the country who are not being looked after. And rightly so. It would be impossible for the organisation to make this its mission. But when it says the ANC “looks after its own”, it says that it is “looking after” those whom it has chosen to “look after”. And this is a message that is clearly communicated to those whom it has chosen not to “look after”.

It is not the ANC’s responsibility to look after anyone. It is its responsibility to run an organisation that will express the will of the people and to protect the interests of those who have voted for them. Its history however places a further responsibility on its shoulders. Whether it likes it or not, it carries the hearts of many in the palm of its hand. Many whom I have spoken with over the past months are unable to move to a point where elections represent a period of normal competition between different political parties. It remains for them more about the heart and the emotional attachment to an ideal they fought for.

There appears to be no distinction between support given to an individual in need of help and protecting the integrity of the organisation. Surely the integrity of the organisation must at all times be uppermost in the minds of its members and leaders. The ANC was built with the sweat of thousands over nearly a century. It is an organisation that carries the spirits of countless South Africans in its bosom. And it is being unwittingly trampled upon with a casualness that is astounding.

Where does all this confusion come from? Why could Mantashe not say that Niehaus will face an immediate disciplinary hearing and will henceforth be removed from any position of authority pending the outcome of such a hearing? Why did he not say that the ANC will not allow any of its staff to bring disgrace to the organisation and will not tolerate or sanction conduct that falls outside the norms of healthy societies? In not doing so, he is chipping away at the public trust.

Where does all this confusion come from? Does it have its roots in the compromise made at the negotiating table? Did we take the trade-offs made then as part of the normal course of things? We did not punish those whose conduct destroyed our social fabric because we considered ourselves to have been at war. Instead, we called for full disclosure and in return granted amnesty for those who transgressed. How full Niehaus’s disclosure has been is uncertain. Nevertheless when caught out, he hung his future on disclosure or confession. This is not surprising considering his strong theological background. However, trading truth for amnesty, may have been a useful way years ago to navigate past a difficult patch in the life of a nation.

The rules we adopted then were designed to take us through a period of transition. They were designed to deal with our past and to find a way to move on as a collective. The problem appears to be that this set of temporary rules has permeated the body politic. Those rules were forced upon us at a particular time but cannot be the norm. The Constitution and the law it upholds are the norm.

Even more so, the Niehaus affair sends a strong message of moral degeneration. Even if the law does not find him guilty, he is by his own confession, guilty of immoral conduct.

Surely it is in the interests of the ANC to send out a message that is unequivocal in its condemnation of such behaviour. If it does not do so, it further confuses an already confused message.


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