When survival & accountability collide
Just days after a national newspaper exposed his academic qualifications as a lie, Pallo Jordan apologised to the African National Congress (ANC) and to South Africa, and stepped down from his public positions. This week, deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa finally appeared before the Marikana Commission of Inquiry to explain his role in events preceding the massacre of 34 mineworkers two years ago, an appearance during which 'sorry' seemed to be the hardest word for him. He still remains the most likely candidate to be the next president of South Africa. Jordan, on the other hand, is headed into the political wilderness. What does this mean for the ANC and for South Africa?
Pallo Jordan was never destined for high office. He is too temperamental, too forthright, too much of a rebel to ever aspire to lead his organisation, the ANC, or the country. He cannot fire up a rally with slogans, sing or gyrate on stage with scantily clad maidens. He would not be able to rustle up a faction behind him to fly his flag in the ANC. He is the consummate intellectual, contrarian, a bit eccentric - not the kind of character the ANC looks for when choosing its top leaders.
Veteran journalists will remember his first press conference on South African soil after the ANC's unbanning when he opened with: "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted 20 years ago". That is Pallo Jordan. Ingenious and wry, with or without the academic qualifications that would affirm his intellect.
Conspiracy has it that it is no accident that Jordan was exposed as having none of the academic qualifications, including a PhD, that he had led the world to believe he possessed. He had trampled on too many powerful toes, had been too outspoken on issues such as the Protection of State Information Bill and the Nkandla security upgrades, and was too contrarian in the ANC national executive committee (NEC), the conspiracy theory goes. Therefore, those who knew his secret, those high enough in the organisation and who had been privy to such information long ago, decided it was time to shoot Jordan down from his perch.
Or perhaps it was just by chance that a writer decided to go looking for his academic qualifications and found none. Whatever led to the expose being published, Jordan felt ashamed and unworthy of his position as a Member of Parliament (MP). He also offered his resignation as a member of the ANC and its NEC. On Monday night, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe announced that the organisation had accepted Jordan's resignation as an MP, but that its structures would decide on his membership of the party and NEC.
"A man of Comrade Pallo Jordan's intellect does not need to perpetuate deceit; he must be given time to deal with his guilt. As the ANC, we have accepted his public apology; to apologise was not an action of the fainthearted," Mantashe said.
And so Jordan will fade off the political scene, perhaps only to be seen at funerals of political luminaries and their contemporaries - as is the case with other political heavyweights who fell from grace. Perhaps the ANC will decide Jordan should remain in the NEC, but he will have lost his edge. He will never be the same. He will never be able to speak with confidence, and articulate himself in that quirky but incisive manner he is known for.
On the other hand, deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa will be able to dust himself off after a harrowing two days at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry and remain at the top table of the ANC. Ramaphosa's evidence has been long anticipated as the survivors, the victims' families and South Africa wanted to hear his version of events prior to the police shooting dead 34 mineworkers and injuring over 70 others on 16 August, 2012.
Ramaphosa was a shareholder and non-executive director at the Lonmin mine when the wildcat strike took place in 2012. An email exchange between Ramaphosa and managers at Lonmin had previously been tabled before the commission, which described the political interventions he had made to stop the strike and violence that occurred in its wake. In one email, Ramaphosa wrote that the events that unfolded could not be described as a labour dispute. "They are plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterised as such. In line with this characterisation there needs to be concomitant action to address this situation," Ramaphosa wrote.
Dali Mpofu, acting for the surviving mineworkers, has argued that the political pressure Ramaphosa exerted on the former Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu and former Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa resulted in the police using excessive force against the striking workers. Ramaphosa had said on numerous occasions that all would be explained when he appeared before the commission.
In his written submission and evidence to the commission, Ramaphosa maintained that his motivation in seeking political intervention on behalf of Lonmin was to prevent further loss of life. Under cross examination, Ramaphosa faced heavy questioning about why he did not use his skills and experience as a negotiator to intervene in the strike, why he did not ensure that Lonmin engaged the workers, and why his contact was only with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and not the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). He also had to negotiate questions about Lonmin building only three houses for workers out of the 5,500 they promised to build between 2006 and 2011.
Ramaphosa did not have particularly convincing answers to any of these questions, and had to make several concessions. They "fell short", they "could have done more", and "there was a possibility that deaths could have been avoided" if he had pushed Lonmin to talk to the miners. Mpofu and Ramaphosa engaged in a protracted head-butting session about the intention of the latter canvassing of political support and characterisation of the dispute as "criminal".
Mpofu argued that Ramaphosa wanted the dispute defined as criminal in order to play into the "shoot to kill" mind-set that had been drummed into the police and agitate for the use of maximum force. Ramaphosa denied that this was his intention, saying his urging of Cabinet ministers to act in a "more pointed way" was merely to get police to do their job and arrest those responsible for the violence. Mpofu, however, got Ramaphosa to concede that it was false to characterise the situation as only a criminal act, as Lonmin had done. "I may well have swallowed the theory but that was the situation I was confronted with," Ramaphosa said.
"You were assimilated into the way of thinking of Lonmin management. In that way you sold out… You did this for financial gain, at the expense of the lives of people… for 30 pieces of silver," Mpofu charged.
Towards the end of the intense crossfire between the two, Ramaphosa was pushed into saying: "I deeply regret the deaths of the people who died at Marikana." Prior to that, Ramaphosa never once felt the need to apologise for not acting to improve the lot of the workers, never once taking the time to engage with them, or for being the pivotal link between Lonmin, the state and NUM colluding against the workers. He was for the first time face-to-face with the surviving workers and the families of those who died. He did not think to say: "I'm sorry for the pain you suffered."
Perhaps this was for the same reason Lonmin had not wanted to engage the striking workers in 2012 - it would have opened the floodgates to unintended consequences. Or perhaps the deputy president just does not feel he has anything to apologise for. His attitude probably hardened when he was repeatedly attacked and heckled at the commission, with people chanting "Blood on his hands!" and accusing him of being a liar and a murderer.
Ramaphosa looked impassive when Mpofu declared that they were going to recommend that he be charged with murder alongside Mthethwa and the policemen who fired at the workers. Ramaphosa also did not react when Mpofu informed him that one of the injured miners wanted them to be charged before the International Criminal Court.
Four months after the massacre, Ramaphosa was elected deputy president of the ANC. This was without the organisation having the benefit of an explanation from him about his role in events preceding the massacre. He also became deputy president of South Africa this year without offering the country the same.
This is a country that rightly demands explanations when R246 million is spent on upgrading the president's private residence or when a politically connected family is able to land a private jet at an air force base. We seem not to demand the same when 34 of our fellow citizens are executed by the police, and when not a single person is held accountable for their deaths two years later.
This is a country starved of political accountability and sailing dangerously close to constitutional freedoms being curtailed. Yet we are meekly accepting of the possible future president washing his hands of responsibility for the deaths of people who were exercising their right to strike for living wages and humane living conditions. After two days at the commission, he is able to walk away, return to the Union Buildings and continue with matters of state as if nothing happened.
And yet we shun a man who felt remorse for being caught in a lie, a moment he probably expected to come for many years, and is mortified enough to apologise and resign from public life. We might not appreciate now how much the ANC, and South Africa, needed Jordan to speak truth to power and to be the voice of reason in a mass of irrationality. But he is gone and in the not too distant future, we might be lumbered with yet another leader who treats us with disdain and ducks accountability.
Are people in positions of power caught in compromising positions more likely to follow Jordan or Ramaphosa's example? Look at the end result. Jordan's admission of guilt leaves him a political pariah; Ramaphosa's shrugging away of responsibility keeps him secure and on track for the Number One position. This is really not a difficult choice to make for anyone else having to walk a similar path. If Jordan's standard had to be applied, a significant portion of current MPs would have long left public life. Acting according to your conscience and doing the right thing is seemingly a suicide mission in South African politics today. Denial and dodging accountability is the unfailing survival tactic.
It is said that every country gets the leaders they deserve. The second anniversary of the Marikana massacre is an opportune moment for South Africa to consider exactly what that means.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.