Absence of accountability SA’s original sin

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Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu greeting the media outside his Milnerton home. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Latin classes were once part of a former life. A favourite Latin phrase of mine remains: post hoc ergo propter hoc. Translated as “after this, therefore because of this”, it is a fallacy in logic. 

A good example of the usage of this fallacy, would be the argument by Russel Pollitt (“Rogues still rule the roost”, The Star, 24 July 2020) when he suggests that “mismanagement because of cadre deployment has meant that even the few available resources have not been managed well.” He goes on to point out that “…another example of incompetence and mismanagement is the medial scooter debacle in the Eastern Cape…”.

A classic case of post hoc ergo propter hoc, it does not automatically mean that mismanagement and incompetence exists because of cadre deployment. There may be other reasons for the mismanagement and incompetence.

One can agree with Pollitt that corruption, exacerbated by Covid-19, must remain a deep concern for South Africans. But like mismanagement and incompetence, corruption thrives because there is very little, if any, accountability in South Africa.

Hopefully by now Pollitt would agree that if there was strong consequence management in South African society, not just in the public sector as he points out, then even cadre deployment could well work in our country. 

Accountability remains one of the cornerstones of any democracy. Yet accountability is also intrinsic to any understanding of justice and reconciliation. At the birth of our country’s democracy, accountability, especially by those who perpetuated and implemented gross human rights violations to uphold apartheid, gave way to a pseudo-reconciliation process. 

For the perpetrators of apartheid, amnesty was much more important than accountability and even reconciliation. Therefore, they saw no real need to pursue any form of justice, whether redistributive or restorative. Even today, those who most vociferously oppose instruments such as a wealth or inheritance tax are, in the main, those who benefitted from apartheid. 

We hasten to add though that if there were gross human rights violations on the other side too, within the liberation movements, then they too should be held to account. This accountability must be applied to all those who perpetrated crimes and especially those who did not seek it necessary to apply for amnesty. 

Sadly, it is the view of the families, whose loved-ones were murdered, that even those who applied for amnesty were not completely truthful and therefore, again, they were not held accountable for their actions. Without truth, there can be no justice. 

Still the flawed thinking goes that if apartheid politicians and policemen could literally get away with murder then surely some of us can get away with stealing. This is not as heinous as apartheid crimes were, they insist. 

South Africa’s original sin remains the fact that accountability was absent when we were born again. The murderers of Ahmed Timol, Victoria Mxenge, Neil Aggett, Coline Williams, Fort Calata, Nokuthula Simelane, Matthew Goniwe, Sicelo Mhlauli, Sparrow Mkhonto, Griffiths Mxenge, Anton Fransch, Robbie Waterwhich and Ashley Kriel, among so many others, walk freely today in our streets. 

Again not to fall into a logical fallacy, corruption, mismanagement and incompetence cannot be excused or condoned because apartheid murderers were not held accountable. But the accountability starts there. 

Pollitt is correct about the crisis in leadership especially in the religious sector and civil society at large. However, what made the likes of Archbishops Tutu and Hurley as well as Revered Beyers Naude “a thorn in the side of the political establishment” was not only their courage but that they practised what they preached. These religious leaders lived non-racialism. This more than anything else proved the sharpness of the thorns that they were.

There is very little accountability in the church especially when it comes to resources. Multi-million Rand organisations, which have existed for years, are simply closed and matters swept under the carpet with no investigation being done. No one is held to account. 

Some have to go on hunger strikes while others have to lay criminal charges to force church authorities to be held accountable for their actions. The church should be the first to hold people to account.  

As we commemorate the lives of Ashley Kriel, Coline Williams and Robbie Waterwhich this month, we remember the role that faith played in the lives of these young people. Williams and Waterwhich in particular were practicing Catholics, influenced by liberation theology and spurred on by their love of God and neighbour. 

With the Bible in their hand and the Freedom Charter in the other, these young people gave their lives for a just South Africa. Yet it is more likely that they would have envisioned a South Africa that holds people accountable whether those people are pensioners, in public office or the pulpit. 


Seale taught South African politics at Rhodes University and UWC. He writes from Beijing.