If our top officials do not respect the law, there will be no hope that ordinary citizens will respect it, writes Thabo Makgoba.
Hot on the heels of celebrating Human Rights Day we were confronted with the ugly underbelly of contradictions in our society. It is highly regrettable that in a society that is battling with moral decay we show such equivocation as we saw with the attacks on the office and person of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.
Such attacks curiously intensified in the weeks before her release of various reports that finger our public representatives.
It is deeply regrettable that in the midst of the corruption engulfing our society, certain clergy have ganged up against the public protector in the name of the church.
They have done so without adequate knowledge of her reports and their intervention only serves to undermine the fight against corruption.
It is clear to any observer that their intervention was timed to coincide with a highly critical report into the conduct of President Jacob Zuma and comes across as an unfortunate attempt to tarnish the name of the protector, in view of what is now out there as a report underlining serious misgivings about governance and ethics in our body politic.
It is shameful to see the dirty tactics being employed by politicians against Madonsela.
There is clearly a co-ordinated campaign by those implicated in her reports to denigrate her office and its work.
This threatens to undermine the legitimacy of an institution established and protected by our constitution. Any thinking citizen can see through this and I am making a call for all of us to be alive to these political games that do nothing to restore the fading moral compass of our society.
We welcome Madonsela’s reports on corruption and mismanagement.
We thank her for making the country accountable and transparent. Her office’s work helps to develop our democracy, and I call on civil society to join the churches in defending it against the current assault as the only sensible commemoration of our democracy and human rights culture.
Now, coming to the Nkandla report: what are the key lessons from this report?
I believe that three things stand out for me: the absence of selflessness, the sample of the overall corruption gripping the nation and, finally, the eroding of a sense of accountability demonstrated by a culture of finding scapegoats.
It is clear that the president had every opportunity to put a stop to the escalating costs of the upgrade to his homestead as far back as 2009, when newspapers wrote about R65 million that was at that point designated to be spent.
Selfless leadership should have kicked in and Zuma should have put a stop to this unjustifiable expenditure.
Today, due to utter neglect and the absence of selflessness, no one can explain away the costs escalating this way in the face of the poverty that surrounds Zuma’s homestead, in particular, and generally, the state of poverty in a developing economy.
We need to revisit how we see leadership, less as privilege and more as selflessness.
Granted that people such as Zuma have struggled and put their lives on the line for the liberation of many, this consciousness is exactly what should continue to be on display and not the sense that this development gives that we are going the way of other liberation movements that quickly swopped the trenches for the palaces of wealth and privilege.
No explanation of these costs can be justified.
We expect of our leaders to selflessly put a stop to perceived opulence in the face of poverty, whatever the circumstances.
For the highest office, which is supposed to have the highest security and access to the best intelligence, so much deviation from the law and proper conduct is scary. You would expect that where such an office is concerned, rules would be sacrosanct.
It is clear, by the government’s own admission, that there were a lot of tender irregularities right at the heart of our state machinery – in the highest office in our land.
It would be a sad conclusion indeed that this is a reflection of what is going on across all the government sectors.
When you add this to the recent report by the auditor-general, on R30 billion splashed on wasteful expenditure, there is a worrying pattern of the poor stewardship of our resources as a country. We have a moral duty to put a stop to this, from the top right through to the smallest municipality.
If the government is not accountable and does not respect its own rules, there will be no hope that citizens will do the same.
It is yet to be seen whether the president and his cabinet will pay attention to this report and take responsibility.
A wrong message will be sent to the nation if there is no accountability following a report as damning as this one.
The recommendations that the president pays back some of the money goes a long way to enforcing accountability at the very top.
Irregularities that may have been committed in his name must also come under attention, and those responsible must definitely be held accountable.
It is important to pause and recognise that the president has so far in his term of office acted on the recommendations of the public protector by dismissing a few ministers after they were fingered by Madonsela.
We need such accountability to apply to this report through the diligent implementation of these recommendations.
Madonsela’s findings have also shown how fickle we are as a society. Her findings of the chaos at the SABC were seemingly not enough for the board there to take action. Her findings at the The Independent Electoral Commission have also been challenged for months, while these public institutions are taking a reputational battering.
There is a poor culture of taking responsibility.
Recently we also saw how, after damning findings, Parliament had to force the former minister of communications to apologise, making a mockery of remorse and introspection in the face of horrendous transgressions.
Madonsela has done more than many of us, even as moral leaders of our country, to prick at the consciousness of our society.
And this is what makes it quite shameful to see churches allowing themselves to be sidetracked from their prophetic mission to fight all that is evil in our society.
The public protector is not perfect and some of her findings may well be fallible, but the manner of how we engage with her office must be that of support for her work and not a terrible campaign to delegitimise her office when her sights are set on us.
I regret the moral paucity that seems endemic across society.
Yes, there are good people out there, but too quiet and afraid and thus complicit.
The report of the public protector is an invitation to a discourse on what matters for South Africa now and in the future.
So don’t fear. Express your constructive input. It is not politicking, but a more profound task of building a moral base.
* Thabo Makgoba is Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.