Publication: Mail and Guardian Issued: Date: 2003-06-09 Reporter: President Thabo Mbeki

Fishers of Corrupt Men



Mail and Guardian

Date 2003-06-09


President Thabo Mbeki

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In the Biblical Gospel according to St Matthew, it is said that Jesus Christ saw Simon Peter and his brother Andrew fishing in the Sea of Galilee. And he said to them: "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men."

Some in our country have appointed themselves as "fishers of corrupt men". Our governance system is the sea in which they have chosen to exercise their craft. From everything they say, it is clear that they know it as a matter of fact that they are bound to return from their fishing expeditions with huge catches of corrupt men (and women).

In 2000, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) conducted hearings on the matter of "racism in the media". Not unexpectedly some in our country and others abroad, made a big song and dance about it.

To frighten the commission into silence, they made the absurd and self-serving allegation that these hearings constituted a threat to the freedom of the press.

The hearings took place and despite the scare-mongering, the press is no less free now than it was before the hearings.

One of the critical issues the African National Congress raised was the role of the intensely negative, highly offensive and deeply entrenched stereotype of Africans among some in our country, which makes it inevitable that much reporting in South Africa would be racist. The ANC made the point that this stereotype necessarily dictated that some in our country would proceed from the position that our government was corrupt as alleged, unless it proved itself to be innocent.

Among other things, it cited the instance of an article in a weekly journal [the Mail and Guardian] in which the journalist concerned gratuitously accused the writer of this Letter, of dictatorial tendencies. The ANC explained the circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of this article, which were relevant to the subject of the hearings.

This matter having been contested and subsequently taken to court by the journal concerned, the judge found in favour of the ANC. But the false allegation of wrongdoing by the ANC was what was vigorously implanted in the public mind. To the contrary, the rejection of this allegation by the courts, and therefore the independent judicial assertion of the truth about this matter, was assiduously hidden from the public.

It was therefore not in the interests of some in our country, who believe in the stereotype, that this truth should be widely known.

The same stereotypical conviction about our government being corrupt, unless it proves itself innocent, has resurfaced with regard to the defence procurement decided by our government in 2000. The fishermen (and women?) have recast their nets, convinced that they will bring in a rich haul of corrupt government luminaries.

Triumphantly, they proclaim that "the publication of details of an earlier (investigative) draft confirmed long-held suspicions by opponents of the arms procurement exercise that changes were made before publication, possibly at the instance of senior members of government".

They say "there was a crucial 'nondisclosure of facts' to a body tasked with evaluating products", and that "draft reports released in court show evidence that passages detailing possible corruption were edited from the report before it was presented to Parliament".

The fishers of corrupt men speculate about the possibility of a senior official being shown to be corrupt, and how this might lead to the conclusion that "the whole edifice of the arms procurement exercise" [is] crumbling. The reality is that the wish is father to the thought.

Further to whet the appetite for the expected catch that will be brought in by the fishers, the threat is made that a "shadow of allegations might engulf" these "highest reaches".

Quite how shadows rather than substance, and allegations rather than facts might engulf the president, or anybody else for that matter, is somewhat difficult to fathom. The point, however, is that neither substance nor facts are important to the fishers of corrupt men in terms of their project to substantiate the stereotype.

What is central is that the stereotype must be sustained and entrenched. Carefully chosen words with no factual information to substantiate them, such as "scandal" and "debacle", also give the shadows and allegations the appearance of substance.

In the current fishing expedition, the auditor general has been targeted as one of the possible big fish that the fishers hope to catch.

Accordingly, they accuse the auditor general of doctoring the report he presented to Parliament, by omitting some details contained in an earlier draft. In barely disguised language, the fishers have said that they are convinced that the auditor general is lying.

As part of this campaign against the auditor general, they charge him with having "sanitised" and "heavily edited" the final report, "possibly at the instance of senior members of government". They say nothing of the fact that the auditor general is required by law to show his draft reports to any institution he may be auditing, for any comments it may wish to make.

This happens regularly, is required by law, and carries no imputation whatsoever of corrupt behaviour on the part of the auditor general.

The fishers have focused especially on the Thomson (Thales) element of the prime contract entered into by the government with the corvette suppliers, the German Frigate Consortium (GFC). The government has explained very clearly before, that it entered into a contract with the GFC to supply the required number of corvettes, meeting all the stipulated specifications.

The government has no contracts with the companies retained by the GFC to supply the various component parts of the corvettes - these are the sub-contractors. Similarly, it never had occasion or need to determine who the partners of the GFC should or should not be, including Thomson (Thales).

They [the fishers] also exclude the fact that the final recommendations to the deciding authority, the Cabinet, had to be, and were made by a Cabinet sub-committee, and not officials.

In time the details of the truth will come out about how the controversy concerning the 2000 defence procurement emerged and persisted.

This detailed, truthful account will tell our country interesting things about defence procurement during the apartheid years, and the promotion of political careers and fortunes in contemporary South Africa. It will tell a story about the political uses of the racist stereotypes that are part of our daily menu of information and perception, and the formation of popular consciousness.

It will inform us about the impact or otherwise of the domestic and international apartheid networks on our democratic order, and the moral integrity of those who correctly claim that they fought for the victory of this order, and therefore seek to position themselves as its true representatives.

The sooner this fascinating story is told the better.

We should not, and will not, abandon the offensive to defeat the insulting campaigns further to entrench a stereotype that has, for centuries, sought to portray Africans as a people that are corrupt, given to telling lies, prone to theft and self-enrichment by immoral means, a people that are otherwise contemptible in the eyes of the "civilised". We must expect that, as usual, our opponents will accuse us of "playing the race card", to stop us confronting the challenge of racism.

The fishers of corrupt men are determined to prove everything in the anti-African stereotype. They rely on their capacity to produce long shadows and innumerable allegations around the effort of our government to supply the South African National Defence Force with the means to discharge its constitutional and continental obligations.

However, what our country needs is substance and not shadows, facts instead of allegations, and the eradication of racism. The struggle continues.

This is an edited version of the Letter from the President that appeared in the May 30 edition of ANC Today.

With acknowledgements to President Thabo Mbeki and the Mail and Guardian.