One wonders what future generations and tomorrow’s historians will make of the fact that it took a video clip of a man stroking his penis to usher in a new era of political accountability.
For this is exactly what happened this week when ANC princeling and once presidential hopeful Malusi Gigaba resigned as minister of home affairs.
Sure, Gigaba didn’t fall because he filmed himself playing with his member and doing a voice-over about putting it in someone’s mouth.
He also didn’t fall because he was stupid enough to send the video to a paramour, kick-starting a process that would see it end up in the wrong hands, so to speak. (If he really believes that anyone buys his story about the hacking of his phone, then he must also believe that the 1969 moon landing was actually shot in the Nevada desert by a Hollywood film house.)
Gigaba fell because, unfortunately for him, the dissemination of his pubescent antics kick-started what was probably the worst week of his career.
By the time the courts hammered nails into his coffin and even democratic South Africa’s weakest Public Protector grew some balls – language Gigaba would understand – he was the national laughing stock.
There were rumours that even patients at Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital were laughing at him.
The damning news coming out of the courts and from the Public Protector in that week found him an already vulnerable man.
He had gone from being his generation’s best prospect for the deputy presidency in 2022 and possible successor to President Cyril Ramaphosa, to being someone whose crotch elicited more public interest than his brain.
The formal processes left Ramaphosa no choice but to guillotine him, but Gigaba’s own actions gave the president the political space to do so.
It is so much easier to execute someone who has no sympathy from the public.
And so a political career that began with youthful activism on KwaZulu-Natal’s blood-drenched streets in the 1980s and could have ended up at the Union Buildings was derailed.
For a long time, he seemed to be on track.
Ever studious, he was looked upon favourably by former president Thabo Mbeki who, like Gigaba, was into big books and big ideas.
Gigaba also looked up to the pipe-smoking one, using his leadership of the ANC Youth League as a protective phalanx around Mbeki when the president was starting to go rogue and authoritarian.
It was only when Fikile Mbalula succeeded Gigaba that the youth league was freed from the cult of Mbeki.
What Mbalula subsequently did with the youth league’s clout and power is a sad story for another day.
As a leader of young people and later as an older brother to youth leaders, Gigaba behaved very differently from his comrades.
Not for him the late nights at Cubana and Taboo. Not for him cavorting with celebrities.
If he was not fulfilling government duties or doing ANC work, his face was either buried in his books or buried elsewhere.
Gigaba’s best chance of getting his ambition back on track depends on how he uses his spare time now that he has lots of it. Does he go and work the ground and rebuild his political profile, or will he again let the devil find work for his idle hands?
What is important here is not Gigaba’s immediate or long-term future. It is what this week meant in the evolution of accountability in our country.
To be accurate, Gigaba’s immediate career was not derailed by the events of the past few weeks – it had been coming since he expediently allowed himself to be part of Jacob Zuma’s state capture project, something that compelled him to relax principle and integrity for the short-term prize of being one of the man’s favourite sons.
It is this that may ensure his career remains derailed as skeletons keep tumbling out of closets. But then, in the Byzantine politics of the ANC, anything is possible.
What is important here is not Gigaba’s immediate or long-term future. It is what this week meant in the evolution of accountability in our country. Before the Gigaba development, leaders could pretty much get away with anything.
As long as you had the governing party’s backing and you belonged to the dominant faction in the ANC, you were safe.
Laziness, incompetence, lying and thieving were rarely punished. Public outrage would only result in a redeployment to a different sphere of state, where the offending person would continue to do damage.
Shame was unknown. The idea of someone falling on their sword was laughably alien. If, for some reason, you happened to be in the wrong faction and got punished, your chances of returning to a senior position when your faction was in ascendancy were high.
Just ask Humphrey Mmemezi, the man who spent R10 000 of state money buying a painting at McDonald’s and then disguised it as a mass purchase of hamburgers.
This Zuma loyalist came back strongly from his exile and now chairs the portfolio committee on public works in Parliament, where he is supposed to exercise oversight over one of the most corrupt departments in government.
This rule, by the way, applied in both Mbeki and Zuma’s eras. It is just that Zuma normalised badness and made it a job requirement.
It is this culture of impunity that enabled Zuma and his coterie to successfully execute the state capture project.
In an environment where there are no consequences, the temptation to break rules is high.
And in an environment in which everybody is sinning and not being punished, even the good guys feel left out and join the frenzy.
So the Gigaba resignation is a turning point in South Africa.
The resignation of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene last month was significant, but he was no heavyweight.
He was also cut from a different cloth and understood that stubbornly hanging on to his position would undermine the credibility of his boss’ clean-up campaign.
Gigaba, on the other hand, was determined to cling to his position. He could not see what the fuss that the public, civil society, media and even some in his own party were making was all about.
In his defence, he even deployed the victim card, painting himself as the target of a powerful white dynasty and its allies.
If he had his way, he would still be jumping into the back seat of a sleek ministerial car this week.
After having dealt with Gigaba in this way, Ramaphosa has no option but to do the same with those who have done worse things – some names immediately come mind.
But it will not be easy.
There will be massive pushback from within the ranks of the ANC, particularly among those who still have not fully internalised the results of December’s national conference.
But Ramaphosa has taken one scalp and has sent a message that the culture of accountability is non-negotiable, and that complying with the rulings of judges and the remedial action instructions of chapter 9 institutions are not options.
The real work, however, will be within the ANC. The culture will have to seep into the culture of the party so that holding people to account is not just seen as a pet project run by Number One and a couple of people around him. Premiers and mayors will also have to understand that this will apply to them in the management of the tiers of government they run.
This is going to be a tall order, given some of the people you find at Luthuli House and those who ANC headquarters has deployed to lower tiers of government.
But the first, big example has been made.
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