FIKILE-NTSIKELELO MOYA: The political chess game: To pardon a king or not?


News that President Cyril Ramaphosa is considering an application to pardon abaThembu King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo has correctly caused a stir.

With elections around the corner, it is reasonable – if not plainly obvious – to come to the conclusion that the pardon is an electioneering move.

One accepts that South Africa has a well-established rural and traditional society that gives a great deal of reverence to the institution of traditional leadership.

Any serious politician who chooses to ignore this fact and assumes that the urban or social media platforms are all there is, does it to their own detriment.

So despite of the king being a convicted criminal who has not shown any remorse for his crimes – crimes he committed against his own subjects - he still has something to say about who gets the vote in his constituency.

How the state responds also gives similar type constituencies ideas about how the state treats the traditional leadership institution.

That said, elections come and go. It will be another five years before the sitting head of state again has to kiss babies and wipe strange women’s tears.

In the mean time, we need institutions to be strong.

It should be concerning to anyone who values our democracy that the president can use his position to decide who gets released from prison and when.

There is no debating that the head of state has the prerogative to pardon convicts. While the president does not need anyone else’s permission, the law still requires that the president not act in bad faith when exercising this prerogative.

Good or bad faith are subjective terms. Yet deciding to release or not release a prisoner whose incarceration has been a political potato from the day he went to jail, cannot but be seen as political decision aimed at advancing the sitting president’s chances in the coming elections.

It would be a different matter if the president was said to be considering a category of prisoners within which the Thembu royal falls.

For example, the president could say he is considering pardoning prisoners of a particular age who have served a third of their sentences.

If the president did that, he would put an end to the ‘whataboutism' that follows such announcements.

South Africa has no shortage of prisoners who believe they deserve either pardon or parole and who for various reasons have not received either.

There are legitimate freedom fighters and the likes of Janusz Waluś who have spent more than two decades in prison and have been pleading for their release without the state budging.

Ramaphosa would also sweep the carpet from below the feet of the likes of the South African Prisoners’ Organisation for Human Rights who are now demanding that other “ordinary” prisoners should be given the same treatment as the king.

To release Inkosi Dalindyebo because of political pressure might gain the president and his party some votes come 8 May, but it will also be a disappointing display of short-term thinking by Ramaphosa.

Even worse, it will be an endorsement that convicts can be used as bargaining chips when the political season demands it and discriminates on the basis of who the victims are.

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury and The Witness.