Politics is brutal and contestants quickly degenerate into enemies, even if they are from the same political institution.
Like in boxing, when an opponent is cornered the instinct is to finish them off, rather than allow them to recuperate and catch their breath.
This was the scene this week where a minister, commonly viewed as a good person, had landed himself in trouble by lying.
Finance minister Nhlanhla Nene was caught in a lie last week after he told the Zondo Commission that he met with the Gupta family several times at their family home in Saxonwold. This was contrary to his comments to eNCA about two years ago, when he said his only interaction with the Gupta brothers was to “bump into them once or twice”, but they had never asked a favour from him.
Read: Nene goes nuclear at state capture inquiry. And drops a few names
Before he went to the commission, the Economic Freedom Fighters had threatened to expose information about him if he did not come clean about the truth of his interaction with the family.
He came clean and owned up to meeting them at their house.
What followed was a host of political commentators trying to absolve him of wrongdoing, despite the clear lie.
This was, I believe, because Nene occupies something of a heroic image. He came to be known as the minister who was fired by former president Jacob Zuma for refusing to sign and approve a nuclear deal agreement with Russia. Nene had stoically stood up to Zuma and insisted that the deal was too expensive, the country could not afford it and there were no immediate tangible benefits for the country. For that, South Africa is eternally grateful to him.
So when he was caught in a scandal of his own, many commentators were caught in a moral dilemma. They could not quite admit and accept that it was the same hero occupying the villain space. So all sorts of excuses and explanations were conjured up.
All heroes are not perfect, so why should we expect Nene to be? I understand this kind of line to say let’s look at the bigger cause – he provided for the country – and overlook the misdemeanours he may have been caught in.
I don’t know where and when do we apply this principle. To whom does it apply? Nene? What about Bathabile Dlamini? Zuma or Malusi Gigaba? Who decides when to invoke the principle?
The other argument was that he was not the only minister to have visited the Guptas. If all the names of ministers who visited the Guptas were revealed, there would be no Cabinet left, went the argument.
Read: Calls for Nene to resign, be investigated over PIC claims
But this was sophistry at its best. Nene was guilty not of visiting the Guptas but of lying about it. If the issue was visiting the Guptas then, for example, Western Cape premier and prominent Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille should have been toast a long time ago since she had also touched base there.
But the difference was that Zille did not try to hide it. She acknowledged it openly and also disclosed the details of the visit, famously including what was on the menu.
Even after owning up to the numerous visits, Nene still did not disclose what was discussed in those meetings. Why? What is he hiding?
Another argument in favour of turning a blind eye on Nene was that, if he was fired, it would dissuade other witnesses from coming forward with information.
Despite all these arguments in his favour, Nene himself admitted that his behaviour was wrong and felt short of what was expected of him. He asked for forgiveness and did not seek to exculpate himself, other than to say he is only human. Nene landed in trouble because his lies were exposed, a subject on which the EFF was already threatening to blackmail him anyway.
In criminal law, there is an injunction that justice must be tempered with mercy. That was the undertone of those who are usually hard on politicians but who wanted to make an exception with Nene.
I understand where that was coming from, given the gentleman that Nene is. But we are hitting a slippery slope when we seek to minimise wrongdoing by politicians and even go further to justify their wrong behaviour.