JUDITH FEBRUARY: Murder, corruption and insurrection - SA is falling apart


South Africa is in crisis.

We had not yet fully made sense of the ashes of July and the violent vortex unleashed in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, when we woke to news of Babita Deokaran's murder. It did not take long to realise this was not simply a random murder. In South Africa, we are well-versed in those.

For too long we have lived with some level of political violence, whether it is in the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal or Mpumalanga (to name the provinces where eliminating one’s political enemies is not an uncommon occurrence). Our politics has become this crude, this bloody and this far removed from the constitutional democracy we are trying to build. Mostly, we try to ignore the whispers of violence until they become news bulletins forcing us to engage with this dark side.

We hear bits and pieces, when the Zondo Commission headquarters were burgled and the Commission’s lawyers and witnesses receive death threats for instance.

There has also been sufficient collusion between those elected to represent us and those within the murkier business community. The evidence against Bosasa at the state capture commission is fresh in our memories. Likewise the murders of Brett Kebble and Gavin Watson show how dangerously private interests collude with political forces and how easily the bloody ends arrives. These murders are never truly "solved".

It’s also easy to find weapons in a country like ours apparently and if the recent crime statistics are anything to go by, most crimes go unpunished. There has been a double digit increase in most crimes in the past year.

In a country that values human life, any police minister would have been shown the door after the release of these latest crime statistics. Instead, Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, retains his position and offers the public mealy-mouthed explanations.

No one is safe anywhere.

In the last few days, we also remembered Uyinene Mrwetyana, a young bright-eyed and idealistic student. She went to her local Post Office to collect a parcel and never returned home. She was murdered by Luyanda Botha, a Post Office employee.

Uyinene was not the first and she will not be the last woman murdered. Parliament is processing three gender-based violence Bills but with a police service so stretched, so corrupt, so inept, we cannot rely on the state to ensure our safety.

But why should politicians be held to account? This is a country where shame is a rare commodity and impunity is writ large.

Deokaran got herself caught up in this world of state capture and its complex web of deceit and murder by simply doing what was right. She was a mother, a senior public servant within the Gauteng Department of Health and a patriot. She dared blow the whistle on billions of rands worth of corruption related to personal protective equipment procurement in Gauteng.

Whistle-blowers have a fundamental role to play in dealing with corruption, whether in the private or public sector. If a whistle-blower’s life is in danger, then, it is trite to say, there will be no incentive for anyone to come forward in future. Deokaran’s death will have a chilling effect in more ways than one.

Last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged as much in his weekly presidential newsletter. There he said: "The murder of Babita Deokaran, a senior finance official in the Gauteng health department, is a stark reminder of the high stakes involved in our collective quest to remove this cancer from our society. While we do not yet know the motive for her murder, she was a key witness in a SIU investigation into the procurement of personal protective equipment in the department. Without their brave and principled interventions we would be unable to unmask those committing corruption. Though much focus in recent times has been on whistle-blowers in the public sector, we also owe a debt of gratitude to those in the private sector whose actions receive less attention, but are equally important."

Six suspects have appeared in court in connection with Deokaran’s murder. The men involved are all from KwaZulu-Natal.

Despite these arrests, many questions remain and will hopefully be answered. Did these men act alone? Did they act on anyone’s instruction? If so, whose?

The president is right when he said that the "Protected Disclosures Act, Labour Relations Act, Companies Act, Protection against Harassment Act, and the Constitution itself" protect whistle-blowers. But this is not enough. What is the action that will be taken now?

As organisations like Corruption Watch and the then Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) argued for years, the Protected Disclosures Act needs to be strengthened.

'We should demand full accountability for this awful crime - from the police and from the National Prosecuting Authority responsible for effective prosecutions. And, we need legislative reform. Deokaran’s death cannot be in vain, not for her child whom she dropped off that fateful morning, not for her heartbroken family and not for our democracy.

Speaking of accountability, remember when the president told us that what we experienced in July was an "insurrection" and he went on to say, "we know who they are"? The new Speaker herself contradicted the president when he called it an insurrection, so the likelihood of coherent oversight by Parliament is slim.

A few people have been arrested, including someone who tweeted under the name, Sphithiphithi Evaluator (real name Zamaswazi Majozi ) and who was supported at court by suspended ANC leader Carl Niehaus.

It is hard to believe that this social media "radical economic transformation" maven started the so-called insurrection. Some far more powerful people were involved in instigating the burning of infrastructure. In addition, accounts under the names of former President Jacob Zuma’s children openly incited violence on social media. The moment has come for arrests of the powerful and politically connected who were almost certainly involved in July’s violence.

Babita Deokaran, Uyinene Mretwaya and the ashes of July are all consequences of a failure of accountability. Things are falling apart and the centre is not holding.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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