Former Communications minister Dina Pule was last week found guilty of misleading Parliament by the houses ethics committee. File photo: Neil Baynes
Former Communications minister Dina Pule was last week found guilty of misleading Parliament by the houses ethics committee. File photo: Neil Baynes

That’s not punishment, it’s leave

By Eusebius McKaiser Time of article published Aug 12, 2013

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Losing a month’s salary is not a big deal for Dina Pule, at most it will be just a little cash-flow headache, says Eusebius McKaiser.

So we now know that Parliament’s ethics committee regards former communications minister, Dina Pule, as a wilful liar. Oh, and as someone who made sure her boyfriend – or in the hilarious language of the committee her “de facto permanent spouse” (or in township slang: a Ben 10) – benefits from the state as a result of their relationship.

But let’s move the discussion beyond the committee’s verdict and ask whether the punishment is proportional to the unethical conduct.

Professor Ben Turok rather casually told journalists, as chairman of the committee, to take seriously the damage Pule would suffer to her reputation. Is that really adequate?

Recall the ethics committee dished out – to be fair to it – the harshest measure available to it currently: suspending her for 15 days from Parliament, docking a months’ salary and asking Parliament to formally reprimand her.

The nexus question though is whether the punishment reflects the seriousness of a minister’s boyfriend benefiting in the millions from the state (and so in effect, stealing from you and me). Furthermore, is the punishment scary enough to deter others? I doubt it. Here is why.

First, a months’ salary is not a big deal for a (now former) minister and an MP, let alone for one who has a, um, comrade-friend-businessman worth millions who can help her out. A month’s salary loss would be felt by a domestic worker, a farm labourer, and perhaps even lower middle-class workers but not by someone of her economic stature.

So why is this regarded as punishment? It is, in the worst-case scenario, an irritating little cash-flow headache, but not more than that. And therefore it’s an ineffective way of deterring her, and other potential unethical public servants, from thinking twice.

What’s a month’s salary if the return on that loss is R6 million in loot?

As for 15 days off from Parliament, oh come on Professor Turok. Sure, we have many hardworking MPs I deeply respect, both within the ANC and among our opposition parties.

But let’s not kid ourselves here. A disgraced MP would gladly be out of sight for 15 days. If it was not mandatory, she would probably have asked her doctor to book her off for stress!

It gives her a chance to avoid the gaze of her colleagues, and especially of opposition politicians. And, frankly, with high levels of absenteeism from ANC MPs, it is difficult to imagine that this “punishment” will have a deterrent effect on others with hands on monetary levers in the state.

Pule might just use the 15 days to watch the Isidingo omnibus she missed out on while in Paris and New York. Or she might, dare I say it, go shop for a pair of new choos. This isn’t punishment. It’s music to the ears of a disgraced MP wanting to avoid public shame.

And then there’s the reprimand.

Do we honestly think that someone who wilfully lies to an ethics committee is the sort of person who worries about a 10-line statement in Parliament censuring their unethical conduct? We just do not have a society in which shaming has that impact.

If we did, then Pule would have resigned for example, apologised to her political colleagues and the country, and tried to rebuild her career, or try out a new career. The fact that, as the committee itself says, she was unwilling to accept responsibility, is a sure indicator that Professor Turok is wrong in thinking that a reprimand will affect her deeply.

What is the conclusion here?

The “punishment” meted out by the ethics committee, though at the limit of what it can do, fails the two primary aims of general punishment, that of expressing social disapproval adequately and deterring wrongdoing generally.

If we disapprove of stealing from the state, then we need to do more than just tell someone to sit at home for two weeks, listen to a statement condemning them and going without cash for a few days.

If we want to deter this kind of unethical conduct, then we need punishment that would make others in positions of authority think twice.

In this case, it might be rational to also mimic Pule if you will get huge returns on nominal punishment.

Last, I know some will remind me the cops are now having a look at the facts.

But don’t miss the underlying theme.

It is not just criminal behaviour that must have serious punishment attached to it.

Unethical conduct must have serious punishment attached to it also, regardless of how this plays out in the criminal justice system.

Unless we secretly, and wrongly, think of ethical rules as unimportant despite the state rotting due to unethical conduct.

* McKaiser hosts Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser on Power FM. He is author of best-selling essay collection A Bantu In My Bathroom.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Star

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