Vigilance against abuse of state power

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Deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, who heads the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture. PHOTO: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA).

In one of the finest autobiographies written in South Africa, Mac Maharaj, in “Shades of Difference”, laments the fact that even in post-apartheid South Africa state agencies were being used to pursue political battles. He shares how he was accused of corruption and his family had to suffer now even in a free South Africa. 

Maharaj, in his interviews with co-author Padraig O’Malley, asserts that he had no problem with any proper investigation being done into him and his family’s affairs but he did object to the way in which those with power were using these powers. 

He continued, “the question of abuse of authority is an important category by which one should be always measuring how far a democracy is moving forward. Historically it is the wielders of power, whether they grabbed power legitimately or illegitimately, but once they have contained that power and done whatever they can to legitimise it in their hands it is the way that power is abused that becomes a threat to the freedom of peoples.”

In the last few weeks, our country has experienced two more occasions where we have had to witness this on-going abuse of power but also the misuse of state resources to settle political scores. The first was the testimony of Duduzane Zuma at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry where he, among others, indicated that he would be suing the state for unlawful arrest. He testified at the commission that he was told by police that he was arrested under the Prevention and Combatting of Corrupt Activities Act based on the mere claims of Mcebisi Jonas. Jonas has up until now not made a statement to the police but Zuma was arrested nonetheless. Why the police then arrested Zuma, we don’t know.

As Maharaj described how this kind of state action, with all its political nuances, can be devastating, Zuma too lamented at the commission that he is viewed as the face of corruption in the country. One can understand why this young businessman would leave South Africa with his young family and seek opportunities elsewhere when his only sin was that his father was the president. He has hitherto not been found guilty of any crime yet he is vilified. 

A day after Zuma’s assurance to the country that he was not corrupt, agents from the Financial Sector Conduct Authority and SAPS swooped on the offices of the Sekunjalo Group. According to reports, they wanted to confiscate computers and hard drives to obtain evidence of irregular trading of Sekunjalo and African Equity Empowerment Investments in relation to AYO Technology Solutions. 

AYO has certainly been under the spotlight in recent times given the Commission of Inquiry into the PIC while some reports have suggested that the commission had chosen only to examine some PIC deals but not others such as Steinhoff, Ascendis Health and Grit. Chairperson of Sekunjalo, Dr Iqbal Survé, was emphatic that Sekunjalo would have cooperated with the FSCA especially given that there was sensitive information on the hard drives which could be of benefit to competitors but objected to the manner in which the raid was carried out. A television broadcast news crew was also on hand. No doubt, the aim was to vilify Sekunjalo and there is a political agenda behind it.

Yet the abuse of power comes in all forms and sizes. The educator who abuses the learner. The policemen who harasses a sex worker. A nurse who ill-treats a patient. A warden who demands favours from a prisoner. All of these are public servants who abuse their state power for personal gain or to please their political masters.

Mac Maharaj was correct when he suggested that abuse of authority is the measurement of a democracy. We must be encouraged as an active citizenry to hold those who abuse their power, especially in the state, to account especially if they use these apparatuses for political gain. The words of Thomas Jefferson therefore ring true today as ever before: eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.    


Wesley Seale taught politics at Rhodes University and UWC. He is pursuing his PhD in China.