THE cynicism of politics and self-serving public officials was given a welcome slap in the face in the past two Tuesdays in South Africa and Israel. In both countries, which are under severe stress for very different reasons, democratic values and the rule of law triumphed despite the ducking and diving of sleazy politicians. And ordinary citizens applauded.
This week, a chastened former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert entered Maasiyahu prison in the town of Ramla to start a 19-month sentence for bribe-taking while he was mayor of Jerusalem and obstruction of justice, even though he still attempted to deny criminal wrongdoing. And in South Africa last week, democracy was victorious as the Constitutional Court convened to determine the status of actions recommended by the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela regarding irregular state expenditure on President Jacob Zuma’s private homestead Nkandla – in essence, she told Zuma he must pay back the money.
Israel’s democracy is far from perfect, with concerns about the current rightwing government’s intrusion into areas such as freedom of speech, educational curricula in schools, artistic freedom and so on, aside from the ongoing juristic issues to do with Palestinian human rights. However, citizens often keep politicians in power not for their integrity or efficient governance, but for other reasons like their security credentials, religious and political agendas, etc. This applies in Israel’s case, in the midst of the seemingly interminable conflict with the Palestinians and the Muslim world, and the general mayhem in the region with Syria being torn to pieces and other places exploding.
But to its great credit, Israel’s legal system has sent both a former prime minister and a president – Moshe Katzav – to prison for financial and sexual criminality respectively. In other countries, something like this has generally happened only after a revolution or a coup, when the heated political climate allows or demands it. Even the United States decided to pardon former president Richard Nixon for ‘any crimes he might have committed against the United States while president’, rather than jail him for the Watergate affair and financial misdemeanours.
Israel has had other corruption scandals. Olmert’s first finance minister, Abraham Hirchson was jailed for embezzlement; former PM Ariel Sharon was tainted with money-laundering and bribery accusations; current PM Benjamin Netanyahu has had two corruption investigations and a third is under way; former PM Ehud Barak has been investigated for a money-laundering affair; interior minister Arye Deri was jailed for bribe-taking.
South Africa too, is under severe stress, 21 years after apartheid officially ended, with poverty worse than ever, unemployment at about 35 per cent, racial tensions soaring, and its economy teetering on the verge of junk status. Attempts by the ANC government to undermine key democratic institutions like the judiciary and the Public Protector in order to stay in power and protect its cadres in their jobs, have become almost routine.
Stories of corruption at all levels have become so commonplace that almost every citizen has one to tell. Such as a traffic cop stopping a speeding motorist and, before issuing a ticket, groaning to him about how hard it is to stand in the hot sun ‘without anything to drink’ – a clear hint that a bribe would be accepted for letting the motorist off the hook. Higher up the chain, ministers’ wives drive the most expensive German cars as a matter of course when there is no need for this, and government officials travel overseas in first class with bloated entourages, costing the country hundreds of thousands of rands unnecessarily.
The country can be immensely proud of its Constitutional Court judges’ performance last Tuesday, who were unrelenting in their probing questioning of lawyers for Zuma, the Public Protector, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, opposition parties and corruption monitoring NGOs. They reasserted constitutional supremacy against a president who seems to think he is above it.
The high point was when Zuma’s counsel, advocate Jeremy Gauntlett, conceded with drooping shoulders that the Public Protector’s recommendations are binding on the president, that he ought to have paid for a portion of the Nkandla upgrades since her report was made public two years ago, and that her report cannot be subverted by another report of the police minister which, at Zuma’s bidding, exonerated him from having to pay back money. What a beautiful moment it was, as legal correctness triumphed over political sleaze.
The proceedings raised the intriguing prospect of Zuma’s impeachment for violating his presidential duty to uphold the constitution. It would be a fine turn of events if he had to face impeachment proceedings initiated by opposition parties. Even if they did not succeed, it would set a precedent for correct presidential behaviour which might do this country immense good for the future. Again, the citizens would applaud. Assuming, of course, that violence did not erupt throughout the country as the ANC saw the possibility of losing its grip on power.
Corruption is a complicated thing to root out of any society. Comparing different countries is never truly objective. If many public officials are investigated and indicted it may indicate a corrupt country or, on the contrary, that law-enforcement is operating well. Nevertheless, some indicators can give a reasonable picture.
How do South Africa and Israel rank in public sector corruption relative to other countries? The 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International shows 68 per cent of countries worldwide have serious corruption. Denmark, Finland and Sweden are the least corrupt of 168 nations. Israel ranks 32, and South Africa 61. The most corrupt are Somalia and North Korea. Sadly, six of the ten most corrupt countries are on the African continent.
Sending a head of state to jail is incredibly difficult to achieve, even in democracies, because of the power the position gives incumbents to manipulate politics and law, for example through appointing cronies to positions of authority. Could Netanyahu go to jail if shown to be guilty of corruption? Could Zuma, with his long list of failed attempts to indict him trailing behind him, be forced to have his day in court on Nkandla and other charges?
Fortunately, South Africa’s judiciary still exhibits significant independence, as we saw last week. Gutsy judges hold the fort. We must fight to keep it that way.
(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)