The English writer and poet Samuel Johnson coined the phrase “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. He lived in England in the 18th century which places him, of course, in a completely different political context.
But he sprang to mind this week when Business Report was deluged by the spokesman for Sekunjalo, who accused this newspaper, and this columnist, of being determined to undermine black business and to personally insult her as “a black woman”.
It made me think that Johnson’s phrase should in the current South African context be: “Accusation of racism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
It is a bit wordy, but it is remarkable how regularly those of us who fish around Parliament asking questions about government deals and government machinations get accused of it, merely because we happen to be white.
It points to a very convenient new form of racism which pervades our country, and which is encouraged by the political elites, which questions the integrity of the messenger in order to create a fog around their own wrongdoings.
The logic is that because you are white, and a male, you must be racist, hate black women and be determined that black business, and by extension black government, fails.
It was a view which was repeatedly stated by former President Thabo Mbeki when white journalists asked him questions he didn’t want to answer.
He repeatedly vilified white businessmen in a similar way. The former Sasol chief executive springs to mind.
Sekunjalo may be squeaky clean, but the vituperative response to questions makes one wonder. Sekunjalo last year won the preferred bidder status to run the R800 million contract to manage South Africa’s marine patrol vessels.
This contract is held until the end of the month by Smit Amandla Marine. Sekunjalo makes no bones about the fact that it is a “struggle” company. Its boss Iqbal Survé is well on his way to be crowned the new Gupta, the new Shaik, the businessman who is firmly connected to the top echelons of our politics.
His company has screamed its head off after questions flowed about the tender’s adjudication process.
The media is accused of casting it in a most negative light. It was the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ fault that it was now drawn into legal action – brought by Smit Amandla. The latter had taken the matter on review to the Western Cape High Court and argued that Sekunjalo had a conflict of interests.
Rather extraordinarily, not only was Premier Fishing, a Sekunjalo subsidiary, a bidder for the contract, but it was also a fishing company. The marine patrol contract involves policing South Africa’s marine resources and its sea waters.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to come up with the question about whether this was a conflict of interest. Oh no, they said, it would not be.
Its preferred bidder status was revoked.
Now we move on to potential legal action being taken by the department about Smit Amandla, which is now being accused of getting an extension in 2005 irregularly. It is accused, ironically, of winning it with a fishing company on board.
This newspaper will ask the unpleasant questions as it unfolds. As Helen Suzman MP, who sat in the apartheid parliament for 35 years, said: “It is the answers, not the questions, that are embarrassing.”