Mpumelelo Mkhabela: Nene's resignation offers an opportunity for South Africans

In his July 2018 Nelson Mandela lecture, former US president Barack Obama spoke about the loss of shame among political leaders. He implied that one group of political leaders would feel embarrassed when caught in a lie. But some would "double up and lie some more".

When former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene testified at the state capture commission of inquiry, he had two options: confess to having met the Guptas or "double up and lie some more". He chose to confess even if such a confession would cast him in a negative light.

Of course, once you change versions, we begin to question whether there isn't something else you are hiding. Based on what is in the public domain Nene is a hero, especially in a country where there is a strong belief among politicians that if you hold on to a lie for dear life, it becomes the truth.

If Nene's example is followed, and all politicians caught in lies come out to make corrections instead of "doubling up and lie some more", our politics would change dramatically.

Significantly, Nene didn't only correct his lies; he also apologised for them. Seeing that a rhetorical public apology not supported by action would ring hollow, he resigned. Some might argue that he faced public pressure. Even if that's the case, it's a good thing for a politician to feel the pressure when they have done wrong. At least they have a concept of what is wrong!

A politician caught in scandal and who is not immune to public pressure is very dangerous. We know this from Jacob Zuma. Since 2005 when his financial advisor Schabir Shaik was found guilty of several crimes including bribing him, Zuma not only ignored public pressure, but went on to convert it into public support for him to rise to the highest office. Once in public office, he turned it into a factory of scandals, lies, obfuscation and ultimately, constitutional violation.

Of course, Zuma had his disciples in former and current Cabinet members who have been caught lying many times – some under oath. They have survived by doubling up with more lies. The very act of remaining in office since they were outed for lying is in itself an act of lying.

Nene deserves praise for breaking the vicious cycle of lying of which he was once part. By offering to resign he made the job of President Cyril Ramaphosa easy. He made it more shameful for his veteran scandal-prone Cabinet colleagues to cling on to public office.

Nene is the only minister who has demonstrated a strong conscience. The dilemma he faced when he appeared before Judge Raymond Zondo was not different to the nuclear deal predicament he spoke about in his testimony. He could have signed, pleased his boss, kept his job and crippled South Africa. But he decided otherwise.

Understandably, some South Africans – those who wouldn't support anyone with the slightest of Zuma's lying tendencies – are tired of being lied to. They would therefore not want to see anything positive in Nene's decisions. But we must acknowledge when an individual takes an unprecedented step in the interest of the country. His refusal to sign the nuclear deal was in the interest of the country. So was his decision to resign.

We can say good riddance if we want to because Nene himself offered us the opportunity to say so. What of those who steadfastly deny us the right to say good riddance?

There are some among us who argue that, unlike the other liars in Cabinet, Nene had to go because he was heading the sensitive finance ministry. But the truth is that Cabinet ministers are equal in terms of the Constitution. In the absence of the finance minister, anyone of them is deemed capable of acting in the position.

Cabinet ministers, in terms of the Constitution, are individually and collectively responsible for Cabinet decisions. They subscribe to the same oath of office. They are sworn in to be "faithful to the Republic of South Africa", undertake to "obey, respect and uphold the Constitution and all other law of the Republic" and to hold their office "with honour and dignity and to be true and faithful counsellor". Nene took the same oath of office as ministers Malusi Gigaba and Bathabile Dlamini.

Nene's resignation gives us an opportunity to interpret the proceedings of the state capture commission of inquiry much broader than its technical/legal terms of reference. There is something more to it. It is, in a way, a moral inquest into the soul of all South Africans who have the power to choose leaders and the leaders themselves. It's an inquest that should result in a fruitful deliberation about values that should guide those who we want to occupy public office.

One of the things under intense scrutiny is the character of our political leaders and the extent to which they understand (or not) their duty to the country, not to themselves. Duty means being guided by your conscience and fidelity to the truth.

Nene erred by lying and seemingly recovered at a later point when he could be accused of expediency. But it is a recovery nonetheless. The importance of truth – something which clearly means nothing to many of our political leaders, including some in the opposition – cannot be stressed enough.

As Samuel Smiles writes in his book Character: "No consideration can justify the sacrifice of truth, which ought to be sovereign in all the relations of life."

- Mkhabela is a political analyst with the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa.

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