Johannesburg - Let’s assume Cosatu boss Zwelinzima Vavi was completely honest on Saturday in his responses to an allegation of rape against him. What can we reasonably say about Vavi in this scenario in which we believe him wholeheartedly?
The main facts, from Vavi’s side, are this. He tells us he had sex with a woman at work. He was having an affair with her. He acknowledges, implicitly, some risk in the sexual acts too. She feared an HIV infection but he reassured her not from him. He tested regularly.
And we know the woman was in a subordinate position to him. He seems to have helped her get the job in the first place.
What does Vavi’s story, taken together with his public record of fighting against a morally feeble leadership in our country, tell us about Vavi himself?
On his own version of the story, I’m afraid Vavi still comes out an ethically weak leader.
His version of events (even if you assume the accused’s version to be a tissue of lies) tells us that he is unable to role-model the kind of public leadership he demands (not that we demand) of other public figures.
Why? Because, for one thing, if you have an affair with a subordinate, it instantly opens you up to reasonable perceptions of running your organisation, as boss, with an unpredictable mix of sexual hormones and sober judgment.
Not Vavi’s kind of exemplar of public leadership excellence, I’m sure.
Interestingly, we just had Oupa Magashula, now former Sars boss, resigning in an almost job-for-pal scandal. He resigned in part because the moral authority that his leadership rested on was no more.
In this case, legalese will, I predict, trump a non-legal debate about ethics and leadership for fans of Vavi.
But legal innocence ought not to end public leadership evaluations. Being subsequently ridiculed by your staff over the water cooler, or perceived as someone opened to sexual suasion for pleasure or career advancement on my subordinate part, reduces your stature several fold.
Are these perceptions fully justified? Not in respect of an unproven or false rape claim (yet to be tested here). But justified in respect of the admitted sex that happened at work. It isn’t even the cheating here that matters but that sex happened at the office at the very least. Vavi’s leadership authority, which has been rooted thus far in moral discourse, is cracked.
But here is what doesn’t follow. We can’t brand Vavi a rapist. A lot of the claims from the accused, including what appears like potential extortion, requires the law of evidence to be applied to it in court.
I would also caution against the assumption that a subordinate is inherently a victim. Sometimes older men and women, seemingly powerful, can be the pathetic disempowered partner in an affair.
For example, a cheating boss worried about being exposed could be at the mercy of a manipulative junior preying on their moral impotence.
Yet, even if Vavi is legally innocent on the rape charge, and the subordinate is evil in intent for demanding money, Vavi still comes out a damaged public leader even in this scenario.
Why? Because his public leadership skill is hugely impugned by his being unable to manage and assess risk, having sex at the office and damaging the credibility of his organisation in virtue of that.
Is Vavi merely human? No, it’s more correct to say he’s also human. More is demanded of public leaders, if we believe Vavi’s own writing and speeches on leadership. Besides, being merely or also human, and living in a society where cheating is rife, don’t change the fact that you fell short of the standards of public leadership excellence.
Many will say though that others have done worse things, and so we should all just sit down already.
But that isn’t a compelling response: it’s analogous to saying we shouldn’t lock up a self-confessed thief unless and until we find all thieves in the land.
Nevertheless, Vavi might survive politically. But only because we’re addicted to the ag-shame trope.
I think we have a democratic duty, however, to reason dispassionately in these cases. Re-read the statement Vavi released on Saturday for yourself, and then apply the standard of public leadership excellence that Vavi himself imposes on our society.
Did he meet his own standards? And then google what he advises leaders to do in that case.
But, then again, consistency in moral reasoning and public discourse isn’t for everyone.
So many of us might reserve moral scorn exclusively for leaders who also cheat but do so at home, lying down rather than standing up, and who take showers afterwards when they’re done. And please don’t ask me to drop names!
* Eusebius McKaiser hosts Power Talk with Eusebius McKaiser on Power FM. He is also an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics
*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.