J February: Exposing self-serving politicians

The importance of investigative journalism has never been underscored as much in South Africa as over the past few weeks. We would never have got to the point of a Public Protector investigation into Nkandla had a few tenacious journalists not dug in their heels. One of them, the late Mandy Rossouw, deserves credit for her resolve, as does the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism's AmaBhungane team who are the recipients of this year's Taco Kuiper award for investigative journalism for its investigation into the Nkandla upgrades.

Kudos to them and all journalists who, in various ways, hold our public representatives (and others) to account. Of course, what we do with the information about corruption once it is in the public domain remains the very next step in the chain of accountability. On that score we have done less well.

Since the release of the Public Protector's report we have had a variety of responses, from the President saying "I didn't ask for it, therefore I won't pay for it", to the more recent assertion by Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande who said the Nkandla allegations were "white people's lies". Of all the rhetoric that has flown out of Nzimande's mouth, this must be the most absurd.

It's not only white people who care about wasteful expenditure, especially not when it has been proven that money was diverted from Public Works Programmes for use on upgrades at Nkandla. Using race in this divisive and destructive manner to cover up a litany of lies, maladministration and incompetence is simply disingenuous. Besides, Thuli Madonsela is a black woman, to state the obvious.

But Nkandla is by no means the only example of a lack of accountability by a public representative. Recently, the MEC for Education in Limpopo Dikeledi Magadzi refused to answer questions about pit latrines that were still in use in certain schools in her province. A six-year-old boy died in January this year after falling into a pit latrine. Yet, they are still in use in certain schools. As Jay Naidoo said last week as he tore into government for its lack of accountability, "how hard can it be to build toilets in South African schools when there are only 27,000 schools?".

What was most startling was the MEC's response to the journalist posing the question. At first she said it was too "painful" for her "as a mother" to talk about the January incident. This was before she lashed out and said, "It was God's will" (for the boy to die) and she was not the "MEC of toilets" (sic).

What the MEC, polished finger-nails and all, did not seem to understand was that she has a Constitutional obligation to account for her department's abysmal failure and a child's death. In addition, if other children were being exposed to similar dangers then we have the right to know and she has an obligation to explain this and do something about it. That is her job, after all.

It is a singular failing of the MEC, her ministry and government when children are exposed to such dangers and no one seems to care that it might happen again.

The MEC should hang her head in shame. But as we have seen so many times in the past, shame is not part of the repertoire of many of our politicians. They have become too blinded by the trappings of office and the accoutrements of power.

So, we doff our caps to the journalists who expose these self-serving politicians. Yet, we need to go a step further and as citizens demand accountability and action against those who would expose a little boy to such danger at a place he was meant to feel safest: his place of learning.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).