It is déjà vu all over again. The president of South Africa has put the entire (and entirely corrupt) province of North West under the control of his national government, and two-thirds of its local municipalities are being taken over by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs as well.
This is a bold move.
It is reminiscent of John Kennedy’s showdown with George Wallace in June 1963. Wallace stood for the status quo, where segregation kept black students from registering at state universities.
Now two black students wanted to register at Alabama State. But in spite of the efforts of civil society and church leaders like Dr Martin Luther King Jr to raise awareness about injustice and inequality, they were forbidden to do so.
The civil rights movement had basically taken this campaign as far as it could. Wallace and the racism that his status quo still practised had to be rooted out by a power higher than the State of Alabama. (In the USA they have states, not provinces; and they have governors, not premiers.)
On June 10, 1963, president Kennedy federalised the National Guard which governor Wallace had been using to enforce his racist status quo. That tipped the balance of powers.
The next day, Kennedy sent his attorney general to confront the governor, who stood in the door of the university’s registration hall - a highly symbolic gesture. He was not going to let the two black youth enter to register. Until the attorney general of the USA himself told him to stand down, for what he was doing was illegal.
The governor backed off and the National Guard escorted the two black students into the building to register. It was high drama.
That night of June 11, president JFK made one of his most memorable speeches. He took the high road and - echoing Dr MLK throughout his televised speech to the nation - he spoke more generically than specifically.
He explained that the steps that he had taken were “moral” not just “legal” - and he pleaded with citizens in all parts of the country to stop practising racial discrimination
As an NGO director throughout these past few years of “citizen revolt” in South Africa, I take courage from Jack Kennedy’s words, from that speech:
“I want to pay tribute to those citizens North and South who have been working in their communities to make life better for all. They are acting not out of a sense of legal duty but out of a sense of human decency. Like our soldiers and sailors in all parts of the world, they are meeting Freedom’s challenge on the firing line, and I salute them for their honour and their courage.”
The parallel is obvious. Over the past few years, it was really up to NGOs like Corruption Watch, faith-based organisations like the South African Council of Churches, and the media to confront and expose corruption and patronage.
From the time the NPA decided to drop all charges against former president Jacob Zuma, it was evident that even the judiciary was under extreme pressure to capitulate to political interference.
The closing of the Scorpions was the best example of that. It was fought tooth and mail by Hugh Glenister - an ordinary citizen whose persistence was nothing less than heroic. That man deserves more than a Bell’s - he should be decorated. Because the decision that he eventually won (even though the Scorpions had already been closed by then) was indicative.
And it led on, a decade after the charges were dropped, to another decision that dropping them had been “irrational” and on again to the corruption charges against a now former president being reinstated.
The point is that corruption and patronage are not just illegal - they are morally wrong, for such practices rob the poor. Even voices within the ANC like the stalwarts have been saying so.
But they were sidelined. So it was left up to Save South Africa and its members to keep the heat turned up. One public protector did her level best to stand against the tide of triumphalist graft. But her successor has shown how adept those perpetrators were at appointing sycophants into key positions.
They even turned the State Security apparatus into a proactive force against opposition - deploying “spooks” to spy on citizens for purposes of intimidation and death squads to eliminate whistle-blowers.
So we welcome the bold move that President Cyril Ramaphosa has finally taken to put the whole of North West Province under national control, including two-thirds of its local municipalities.
Parliamentary spokesperson Moloto Mothapo confirmed to the Sunday Times on Friday that National Council of Provinces chairpersonThandi Modise had received a letter from the president saying North West would be put under national control for 180 days in terms of the section 100 (1) of the constitution.
This takes the fightback strategy against this moral issue to a new level.
It is high time that the use of force be invoked, to put triumphalism on the back foot.
Former finance minister Trevor Manuel’s advice should be heeded. He was quoted as saying, at a recent conference in Rwanda:
“We have to demonstrate that change happened, forcefully, and that we will not tolerate corruption in the public service”
“And if the first big investment that President Ramaphosa makes is an adequate supply of handcuffs and orange uniforms, which is what people wear in prison, then so be it”
It should be noted that governor Wallace later survived an assassination attempt. Later again in his career, he returned to public life, a much changed individual. Physically, because he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair after his recovery from the attempt on his life.
But his mind had been changed too, and he heeded the guidance of president Kennedy, who sadly did not survive assassination.
Jails in South Africa are run by the Department of Correctional Services. We can hope that after spending time being “corrected”, we can expect more years of honest and humble service as part of the restitution required of those who are convicted.
* Chuck Stephens is the director at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.