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Gat, gather, Gathering: gatvol.

The staff and sponsors of the Daily Maverick are deserving of grateful congratulations for making the annual Gathering at Cape Town International Conference Centre the rich and varied smorgasbord (the content, not the catering) it turned out to be on 6 March 2020. It is impossible, in a single, readable and not unduly lengthy piece, to do justice to every panel, presentation, debate and discussion. Indeed, as the event was conducted simultaneously in two venues, no one person could be in CTICC Ballroom East and Auditorium 2 at the same time; choices of which venue to attend had to be made by the largely wrinkly and pigment-challenged audience who turned up for the Gathering. It is no mean feat to fill so large a venue on a working Friday when the weather is as good as it was on the day. By 5:30 pm, after an early start and a commendably short lunch break, Rebecca Davis was heard to congratulate the substantial number of participants who sat it out, on chairs not made for sitting on all day, to hear NDPP Shamila Batohi present her usual shopping list of excuses for the failure to issue orange overalls to the corrupt in high places.

This review covers only the highlights of the goings on in the Ballroom; no single scribe can be in two places at the same time.

It is possible to summarise the day’s interactions in the four words of the title chosen above:

GAT is for (good) governance, accountability and transparency; gather is what everyone did at the Gathering, and most were there because they are “gatvol” – a term that will have to be explained to the lovely English rose, [insert name], substituting for an out of sorts Judith February, who referred to the audience as “people in a purple haze” (actually the combined effect of the air-con and lighting) without perhaps appreciating that back in the eighties many in the audience would have been youngish protesters “gatvol” with apartheid and getting sprayed purple by the riot squad of the police force. This elicited the precious graffiti “the purple shall govern” and “purple people unite”. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The need to rebuild SA after the ravages of the Zuma era and because of the ongoing paralysis of poor policy choices ran like a golden thread throughout the programme. From kicking off with “Restoring justice in SA” to Shamila Batohi as the final act of the day the Governance Accountability Transparency aspects of the rebuilding envisaged came under scrutiny.

In the first session, chaired by former prosecutor Anton du Plessis, mergers and acquisitions lawyer Robert Applebaum presented a hugely unpopular suggestion: amnesty for the corrupt, those of them who confess and pay back the money. When his idea was put to Batoyi in the last session her incredulous “What!” said it all. Crimes committed for the purest of political motives are the subject matter of amnesty of the TRC kind; the greedy, the venal and the bottom feeders involved in grand corruption should not be presented with a “get out of jail free card” for all the damage they have wrought; corruption in SA is largely “theft from the poor” and the poor, over half of the population, deserve a better outcome than what amnesty by its nature offers.

Panellist Lwando Xaso asked du Plessis a telling question: “Why aren’t you a prosecutor now, we need you?” While he did not answer directly, it is plain that working in the broken and bent prosecution service must be the most remote career choice on his mind. That is the position with most of the good people who left the NPA when the Zuma era dawned or even before that inauspicious date in December 2007. It is one of the main reasons why the NPA cannot be “rebuilt” in the short time frame required in SA. Creating and training up good prosecutors takes ten years, expert prosecutors capable of successfully prosecuting complex corruption cases ought to have twenty or so years’ of experience under their belts. Batoyi admits that she was guilt tripped back into the NPA from a cushy better-paid job in The Hague by her son who told her not to be selfish. Her anti-corruption head, Hermione Cronje, left the NPA the minute she saw what mendacious Menzi Simelane was doing to it. Her decision to return is a rare one and will remain so unless a “work around” solution is fashioned to address the structural and operational malaise in the NPA.

The second panel discussed the question whether SA can ride the African development wave. It saw Jakkie Cilliers confessing to borrowing the “Make Africa Great Again” slogan from the Trump campaign, while futurist Morne Mostert explained the demographic age spread in Africa as one that is likely to improve wave riding prospects in the future. Apparently the surf is not “up” now because the population of Africa is preponderantly young and therefore economically inactive.

A trailer of the film “Influence” made by Richard Poplak and Diana Neille on the baleful role of Bell Pottinger in selling political ideas like soap took those in the Ballroom through to the morning coffee break.

A debate followed between those favouring atoms rather than photons for energy generation in SA, moderated by Chris Yelland. The back-and-forth saw Mark Swilling annihilate the pro-atom arguments of Adil Nchangeleng. He did so without even mentioning the issues around disposal of toxic nuclear waste.

Next, Ann Bernstein, with many probing and not so probing questions, sought to find a way out of SA’s economic quagmire with John Steenhuisen, Maria Ramos and Iraj Abedian. They failed to do so largely because they did not identify “disadvantage” as the sole constitutional criterion for affirmative action of all kinds, including economic activities. It is all there is section 9 of the Constitution and has been since the get-go. The race based policies of the ANC around BEE and BBBEE as well as illegal cadre deployment were let off the hook, even though they are implemented in favour of the least disadvantaged and to the detriment of the most disadvantaged in SA today.

The “purple people unite” debate between three opposition politicians from SA, Zimbabwe and Tanzania was couched as “Autocracy v Democracy”. Tendai Biti’s heartful contribution on the Zimbabwean experience was telling. He pointed out that in African politics we have constitutions but no constitutionalists, rules but no rule of law. Well said, sir.

Mmusi Maimane took it up himself to apologise for the Afrophobes among South Africans, only he called their affliction xenophobia.

Before the afternoon coffee break a serious discussion of humour and politics was chaired by the inimitable Marianne Thamm. Anyone considering a career that involves the funny side of politics should study the discussion carefully before taking the plunge.

Dennis Davis, using his tried and tested television interviewer technique, chaired a panel on the “Monster Issue of Unemployment”. He pointed out, correctly so, that without more employment opportunities constitutional democracy is doomed in SA. The trust and necessary confidence of investors (whether local or foreign) whose funding will create jobs is notably and worryingly absent. Davis, at his anecdotal best, related how a potential investor in SA said “Call me when orange overalls are issued to a corrupt politician and I will consider investing”.

This critical observation points to the need to speed up the processes of “Operation Orange Overalls”. Davis openly doubted that any politician would ever be prosecuted for corruption in SA. He said so knowing full well that Shamila Batoyi was in the audience and next up on stage.

Batoyi, besides rubbishing the idea of amnesty for the corrupt, did not offer anything new other than an update on the tortuously slow developments toward an extradition treaty with the UAE.

It ought to be plain to any sentient observer that rebuilding involves huge investment in SA. Clearly no significant new investment will come unless and until the corrupt are dealt with properly. This outcome the NPA, as configured at present, cannot deliver in the short or even medium term.

The rebuilding of SA has to start with a cleansing of the corruption that blights our wave riding potential, keeps us in an economic quagmire, reduces the rule of law to rules that are routinely broken and leaves the unemployed to their unfortunate lot in life.

The Scorpions of old showed us that SA has the talent, skill and capacity to confront the corrupt. The Scorpions did not enjoy security of tenure and were closed down as step one in the Zuma state capture project. Splitting investigative functions and prosecutorial duties between the police and the NPA has not worked, as Batoyi frankly conceded during her conversation with Rebecca Davis.

What is needed most to rebuild SA is the political will to establish a new chapter nine institution to investigate and prosecute grand corruption in SA. With cross party co-operation this body, imbued with the characteristics the courts require, could be up and running within a year or two. This timeline is a vast improvement on what the NPA can achieve in its “hollowed out, compromised and corrupted” state (Robert McBride’s words in the Restoring Justice session)

Those who are “gatvol” with the status quo should join in the campaign, inspired by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, aimed at the issuing of orange overalls to the corrupt. It is a necessary first step in the rebuilding of SA.

Paul Hoffman SC is a director of Accountability Now

7 March 2019.

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