Hero? Villain? Who gets to blow that strong whistle?

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Beware in spilling the heavyweight beans! Angelo Agrizzi has provided the Zondo commission names of senior ANC and other officials who he claims were long involved in serious corruption. He has received death threats. (Picture: Abigail Javier/EWN Jan 2019)

WHEN a bold man raises his head too far above the parapet, he risks having his head chopped off. By either side.

Angelo Agrizzi, the key whistleblower on corruption in the ANC and elsewhere, currently appearing at Judge Zondo’s Commission into State Capture, must be aware of this irony. He has become a champion of a strange kind to some. He will be remembered not only for past wrongdoing as COO of Bosasa, a channel for billions in laundered money, but for his act now of coming clean about the slew of powerful individuals involved, many of them heroes of the struggle who want him to shut up. The death threats against him are not surprising.

His revelations debunk the naïve notion that struggle heroes are by default honourable people. A procession of them have turned out to be dirty and corrupt, ranging from former president Jacob Zuma downwards. People ask: Is there anybody out there who is still to be trusted?

It is confusing, this switching of identities from hero to scoundrel and vice versa. It’s a theme of our times. Perhaps life was always like that, but it is often heard around dinner tables nowadays that it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad. A nostalgia exists for less confusing days.

What to do with the Watson family from the Eastern Cape, for example, who bravely opposed apartheid and were members of the then-banned ANC and SA Communist Party. ‘Cheeky’ Watson refused to participate in trials for the 1976 Springbok team, instead playing rugby in black townships, thus breaking segregation laws. This made him a local hero. Later, he used his high-level contacts to accumulate huge, illegal wealth.

During apartheid, most people knew the racist system was bad, whether they opposed it or not. During the Second World War, most knew Germany was an enemy. In South Africa today, ordinary people instinctively reject corruption but don’t appreciate its extent as the biggest threat to the country which might bring it down – more than racism.

The villain-hero dichotomy goes beyond our borders. Robert Mugabe, once a hero of Zimbabwe’s struggle to rid his country of the English oppressors, changed into the villain once he got used to being in power, almost destroying the country with corruption and authoritarian rule, and refusing to relinquish power. Zimbabwe has since stumbled from one catastrophe to another. However, many today long for the stability he brought.

The identity-switching cuts across generation and race.  A Wits lecturer says when she mentions the name of anti-apartheid music icon Johnny Clegg to black students, they call him an “old white man” not worth knowing about, denying him another identity regardless of what he did. Other white faculty report similar occurrences. Minority communities, such as Jews and Greeks, experience similar blanket labelling, with little attempt at unpicking nuances.

Confusion about identity isn’t just political, but social. Billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, was once regarded as the hero who would democratise information and communication, away from the clutches of people with nefarious interests. Facebook is so intertwined with modern life, one cannot imagine being without it. But it is as much a channel for hate as for good – a ‘Big Brother’ collecting data about people and sinisterly watching their habits. Zuckerberg might be seen by future historians as a ‘Stalin’ manipulating the masses, rather than a hero.

Is the Zondo enquiry useful or futile in tackling corruption? No way to know yet, but if it gives the Agrizzis of this world a strong enough whistle to blow, it might just be the former.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

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