If you speak to someone from the Durban township of KwaMashu, they will most likely know the name Njengabantu Sithole.
He was a legendary comrade who was renowned for his bravery, intellect and leadership skills.
Njengabantu survived assassination attempts at the hands of Inkatha Freedom Party goons and security force hit squads.
He was detained and tortured numerous times. His home was attacked and burnt, and he was often forced to live life on the run.
But he always returned to lead from the front, knowing full well that he was living on borrowed time.
It mattered not to Njengabantu. He was a servant of the freedom struggle.
To the people of KwaMashu, this comrade was just indestructible. When Njengabantu met his death, it was not at the hands of the enemy.
It is said he was attending a party at the home of anti-apartheid activists in the suburbs and, at some point during the evening, the good waters got the better of him.
The story goes that Njengabantu wandered away from the rest of the crowd and fell into the swimming pool.
It took a while for people to discover his lifeless, floating body. Not the end we envisaged for this indestructible warrior, who was always supposed to have met his end on the battlefield, with his boots strapped tightly on.
Naturally, few wanted to accept this. A conspiracy theory evolved that said the enemy forces must have infiltrated the party and pushed him into the water.
Drowning in swimming pools in white suburbs just didn’t happen to heroes, so the narrative had to be different.
Fast forward to the democratic era, 2018 to be precise, and there is a hero of the good governance struggle who goes down in a manner that should never have been.
Former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, who stood up to Jacob Zuma’s axis of criminality and has the scars to prove it, had his public service career ended ignominiously, his reputation as one of the good guys ripped to shreds. Now known as the “first casualty” of the Zondo commission into state capture, Nene may never fully recover his good name.
But even before Nene was run out of office, the defence armies were out there refusing to accept that he was fallible. All manner of excuses were made on his behalf.
Oh, his only sin was not being upfront about meeting and hugging the Guptas. Oh, there are worse people in Cabinet than him. Oh, what about Bathabile Dlamini?
Oh, but he saved us from a crippling and corrupt nuclear deal. Oh, but Zuma fired him in December 2015 because he was principled. Oh, he was such a good steward of our finances.
Oh, he is the victim of the unholy alliance of Zumarites and the Economic Freedom Fighters. And, as Thabo Mbeki would say, so on and so forth and so on and so forth.
Nene’s behaviour, the apologetic reaction to it and the regrets about his departure say a lot of about the moral character of our republic.
We damn those we do not like and build defence cases for those we believe are on the side of the angels.
We just simply cannot stomach the fact that a hero can fall.
The thing about Nene’s betrayal is that it is more hurtful than anything a Bathabile Dlamini or other errant minister will ever do. You see, he was one of the good guys.
Or he was supposed to be. As a society facing a typhoon of corruption, he led us to believe he was one of the sturdy trees we could hold on to until the onslaught passed.
Yet, it appears he may have been using the same cutlery and crockery that Duduzane Zuma, Mosebenzi Zwane and Des van Rooyen were eating with. Yuck!
In his crocodile tears apology for betraying the “trust and faith you have placed in me”, he described his relationship with the Guptas as an error of judgement.
“I am human, too. I do make mistakes, including those of poor judgement ... I thought it would do no harm to honour the invitation and hear him out. I had no reason to think that it would have an adverse impact,” he said.
That statement, quite frankly, was much more insulting to the intelligence of South Africans than the original lie that he had never met with the Guptas in a private setting.
Assuming that Nene was more literate than Zuma – which most nursery school children are – he would have known a lot about the Guptas by the time he honoured the invitation to visit them in Saxonwold.
Des van Rooyen
The media was awash with stories of their thieving ways. And if he was distrustful of the media’s portrayal of this family, his own comrades in the ANC would have confirmed their badness.
This was a time when the state capture project was in full swing. The Guptas were busy placing their people in key state positions and stuffing their mouths with public resources.
And the media was diligently keeping South Africa abreast of this nefarious project.
In his own words, Nene said he did not attend the infamous Sun City wedding in 2013 because it would have been inappropriate.
So, clearly, he was aware that there was something dodgy about them. When former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas went public with the Guptas’ attempts to get him to replace Nene, surely it should have occurred to the man in charge of the public purse that full disclosure was needed?
And as the looting fest of 2015 to 2017 was under way and very much in the public domain, Nene still kept his dalliances with the Guptas a secret.
In media interviews and public engagements when he was out of office and hailed as a man of principle, Nene still said nothing.
When the SA Council of Churches oversaw an “unburdening” commission of inquiry into state capture and academic institutions – aided by an axed Jonas – produced a thorough analysis of the phenomenon, our hero did not feel the need to lift the heavy burden from his conscience.
Why? Could it be that the good man was perhaps not so good after all?
Could it be that the germs on the Saxonwold cutlery and crockery may have given him an infection that he could not disclose?
This lowly newspaperman is hoping against hope that the supposed error of judgement remained just that and that no surprises await us.
But to say that Nene was “not as bad as others” is to seriously lower our national morality bar.
It is tantamount to saying the VBS Bank heist is better than the Steinhoff robbery because the amounts are lower than the fortunes lost in that scam.
It is to say that we should compare our relative corruption levels to those of Nigeria.
That we should not press buttons about gangsterism on the Cape Flats because the situation in the Brazilian favelas is much worse.
Or that there is a government minister somewhere in the world whose chewing movements are much more rapid than Dlamini’s (although that would be a scientific impossibility).
Zuma damaged us badly. He made us believe that public morality is relative. So much so that we are prepared to cut people like Nene some slack and let them retain hero status they no longer deserve.
Njengabantu died a hero. In the wrong way and in the wrong place, yes.
But if he was in a formal army, his medals and rank would still be intact. Nene, on the other hand, would be stripped of rank and forced to give back his medals.
We have to move beyond the Zuma era and regain our moral compass.
As we rebuild our economy and our infrastructure, and restore faith in the rule of law, we should also work hard to repair the morality of our republic.