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OPINION: Strange days indeed for South Africa

Sometimes in life, both public and private, nothing needs to be said to show up those who lack integrity. Friday 20 May was such a day.

Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke and Mogoeng Mogoeng would have had every reason to despise each other. After all, Moseneke was overlooked for the position of Chief Justice in what clearly was a political manoeuvre. He could possibly not be trusted given his critical comments on the state of the nation. Most who attended Mogoeng's Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interview remained deeply concerned and skeptical about his commitment to the Constitution and his stance on women and rape. But, in Zuma's world, Mogoeng was always going to be the man for the job. And so, it was with trepidation that we watched the intellectual heavyweight Moseneke sidelined and Mogoeng assume the top job.

Yet, Mogoeng has grown in stature and certainly the manner in which he dealt with the Nkandla judgment - a moment where weaker men and women might well have floundered - was exemplary. And so this past week both men were charged to reflect on the Constitutional Court and naturally, their relationship.

As Mogoeng rightly said, Moseneke could have chosen not to continue doing his job when overlooked, but he chose the high road and did so with distinction. But the most significant comment was Moseneke, in reply to Mogoeng, saying "your integrity is without question. I say to the nation you are a safe pair of hands as I make my last salute to you."

There was no dry eye as Moseneke battled through his final words, himself holding back tears. An embrace from the Chief Justice, a standing ovation of minutes from our finest legal minds and leaders and the day was done.

For one brief moment, we had a real glimpse of what a South Africa could look like if we had leaders of integrity. We basked in Moseneke's stature and in Mogoeng's generosity of spirit and humility. It's the kind of country we can be.

Moseneke and Mogoeng's gesture stands in stark contrast to the daily utterances of politicians, so unable to go beyond the narrow political fray and power-mongering. ANC Youth League president Collen Maine called for 'war' on the EFF as we watched parliamentary protection officers and so-called 'honourable members' come to blows. Literally.

The ANC condemned the comment, yet the party itself has turned a blind eye to President Jacob Zuma's own 'war talk', most recently in Gauteng. Zuma invoked images of battle as he spoke of the forthcoming elections. At the National Orders ceremony, a state event, the choir could be heard singing strains of Umshini wam, Zuma's own war cry. "It's all figurative," we are told. Yet, in some parts of our country political assassinations are rife and violence remains a way of settling political scores. Is it any wonder then that Maine makes the comments he does? Anything goes, after all.

But these are strange days indeed with good men and women in government in short supply, it would seem.

Reports of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan's 'imminent arrest' hang over his head like the proverbial sword of Damocles as he tries to stave off ratings downgrades.

Our prosecuting authority seems deeply compromised, as do the Hawks. The Scorpions were, after all, not disbanded for nothing. Can we trust head of the NPA Shaun Abrahams to make the right decisions regarding Gordhan, or indeed the charges of fraud hanging precariously over Zuma's head?

We certainly cannot trust our president despite the press release from the Presidency that Gordhan was not about to be arrested. Part of it read, "President Zuma and the whole of government are focused on the goal of reigniting economic growth, preserving existing jobs and creating more jobs through working together with business and labour."

Given the uncertainty of our day-to-day politics, it is hard to be reassured by anything the president says or does. Last weekend in Gauteng Zuma again mocked those who spoke of 'state capture' and asked curiously and sarcastically, "what is this state capture?"

Having staved off a Moody's downgrade, Zuma seemed pleased to take the credit for Gordhan's hard work.

The president, with a merry band of opportunists and securocrats around him, his hunger for power and protecting himself knows no limits. Minister of State Security David Mahlobo appears as Zuma's right hand man when it comes to consolidating power and using the 'spooks' to fight the internecine battles paralysing the ANC. It might be entirely possible for the country to awake to a Gordhan arrest. Things are simply that unpredictable.

And so, the Presidency's comments about being "focused on reigniting growth in the economy" appear shallow and unconvincing.

South Africa's unemployment figures recently released showed that we are hovering at around 27% unemployment. The greatest job losses were in trade, manufacturing and construction. The unsustainability of these figures is seen all around us. While the answers to structural unemployment are not easy ones to arrive at, there can be no doubting that the current games of chess among rival political factions within the ANC and Cabinet is distracting and destructive. As inequality increases, so do protests. Inequality creates instability.

Our country is burning on Zuma's watch and we find ourselves grappling for leadership and answers. We can continue patching things up and Gordhan can stave off downgrades, but that will not deal with the underlying rot on which South Africa now rests.

The ConCourt itself, like all our institutions, will face difficult days. It needs to replace Moseneke and the retired Justice Van Der Westhuizen. Zuma will have a hand in that too. Moseneke's retirement leaves a legacy of a deep commitment to the rule of law and of someone who spoke truth to power. At the ConCourt on Friday, the better forces of our nature were gathered and through Moseneke and Mogoeng reasserted our values.

Some build up while others destroy. Moseneke's legacy spoke for itself - the best Chief Justice we never had, perhaps yes. But more than that, he is a man of integrity. In that alone is a sobering message for our politicians whom we find so seriously wanting as their own lack of integrity ironically stands in the way of creating an equal and just society for the poor on whose behalf they pretend to speak.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judithfebruary_

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