Trial By Rumour
Mail and Guardian
In the late 1980s there lived an old woman in the KwaMashu neighbourhood where I grew up. She lived alone, was for years dressed in widow's weeds and spoke to no one.
We would see her only when she left home to run errands or came out to hang her washing - which sometimes included what seemed to be Inkatha regalia.
The conclusion was reached by all: she was a witch, a spy and Inkatha. That she was Inkatha and a spy meant something should be done about her. But the fact that she might also be a witch complicated matters, as her arsenal might just have been too much for attackers.
Then some time in 1989, on the eve of the commemoration of one of the township's struggle heroes, something happened. A rumour circulated that the old woman had been seen walking naked in the streets after midnight, ostensibly to cast an evil pall over the commemoration ceremony.
When the ceremony ran into police harassment and bloody clashes, the blame was laid squarely at her door. It was she who had created conditions for the injuries and arrests. After all, she was a witch, a spy and Inkatha.
A few weeks later her body was found half a kilometre from her home, riddled with bullets. The fact that she had managed to evade her assailants for such a distance was evidence, for many, that she indeed had supernatural powers that made her difficult to kill.
No one bothered to find out who killed her. She had been a witch, a spy and Inkatha. Now she was dead.
That was the 1980s when impimpis were as vile as the enemy itself. Many would say the old woman was lucky to be shot, as others met far more horrifying deaths.
Some were genuine impimpis. But others were victims of what one could call "trial by rumour".
Thankfully, we have moved away from that era and its ways. We can now deal with accusations rationally, through the judicial system or in the realm of public discourse.
Or so we believed. Nine-and-a-half years into our democracy, we are back in the world of rumour-mongering and assassination by innuendo.
Take the case of National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka. In recent weeks he has been the subject of a whispering campaign, whose most damaging claim is that he spied for the apartheid government. This rumour was eventually backed by documentation indicating that Ngcuka might have betrayed his comrades in the dying days of apartheid.
As in the bad old days, the accusers have not proved anything beyond reasonable doubt. They simply allude to the possibility of espionage based on circumstantial evidence, based on a report, based on apartheid security force documents, based on shadowy spies somewhere in the crevice between the liberation movement and the apartheid system.
Trial by rumour led to the death of many people in the 1980s. Granted, one was at war and the last thing one wanted in the same trench was an untrustworthy comrade. Senior leaders had called for impimpis to suffer gruesome punishment.
But in the process, impimpi-spotting became so widespread in the liberation movement that it became self-destructive. Picking up on this trend, the security establishment developed strategies to enhance the culture of suspicion, to divide the enemies of apartheid.
A prominent KwaMashu youth activist was once picked up by the police and dumped outside Durban's notorious CR Swart Square on the day of a mass release of detainees. When the released prisoners saw him, they could only reach one conclusion: that he was there for debriefing and payment. No amount of explaining and protestation from the young man could persuade them otherwise.
In the weeks that followed, his circle of friends shrank and he was invited to fewer and fewer meetings. Those who pleaded his case were silenced with dollops of extremely circumstantial evidence.
He retreated to the emotional safety of his own family, finally leaving to study at a distant university where his anonymity allowed him to continue contributing to a cause in which he so fervently believed.
The court of rumour requires no conclusive evidence, and from it there is no appeal. No matter how much Ngcuka pleads his innocence, the court of rumour has sat and passed judgement. In many quarters, particularly in the ruling party, many will now question his integrity. Stories are already circulating about his real motives for investigating African National Congress leaders suspected of wrongdoing.
This should tell Ngcuka that he should have stuck to the letter of the law, subjecting Deputy President Jacob Zuma to a proper court process rather than first bringing him to the bar of public opinion.
But as the Schabir Shaik trial plays out, Zuma will have no choice but to answer to this court. He cannot, as the country's second citizen, run away from answering to the public he serves.
In the court of public opinion, where the combatants are out in the open, there are remedies. It is open to Zuma to explain his actions to the satisfaction of reasonable South Africans.
In the shadowy world of spies and whispering campaigns, it is well-nigh impossible to differentiate between fact, fiction and smear.
But popular opinion has its own weaknesses as a means of sifting truth from lies: it can also breed unsubstantiated allegations. It is a very dangerous place to resolve what may be the most contentious issues to face post-apartheid South Africa.
In sorting out the Zuma/Ngcuka mess, we should consider retreating to the legitimate institutions the democratic order bred and gave legitimacy.
Step one would be for Ngcuka to treat Zuma as he would any accused against whom there is prima facie evidence.
Step two would be for Zuma to cooperate fully with the investigation and stop tap-dancing to his own semantics. In a structured investigation, where he fully answers questions about his personal finances, he could clear his name once and for all.
He will also have to call to heel that funny Durban family, whose loyalty to him seems so oddly intense. They, too, will have to play by the book.
The battle must be fought out in well-lit rooms by visible antagonists, with clearly defined rules of combat. What we cannot afford is a retreat to the barbarous methods of our past rulers.
With acknowledgements to Mondli Makhanya and the Mail & Guardian.