Jailing the corrupt big fish would give SA joy, but it has its ...


Jailing the corrupt big fish would give SA joy, but it has its dangers

Should we consider amnesty for the corrupt, be they small fry or senior politicians? It’s a complex issue

Thuli Madonsela has dared to air an idea that horrifies most South African.
A STEP TOO FAR, THULI? Thuli Madonsela has dared to air an idea that horrifies most South African.
Image: Thuli Dlamini

When someone of the stature of our former public prosecutor, Thuli Madonsela, floats a controversial idea in public, it is worth taking a closer look. On October 6, she tabled the idea of an amnesty for crooks in a speech at a Nelson Mandela Bay Leadership Summit about how to deal with the rampant corruption in the public sector; it was reported in The Herald newspaper the next day.

My Twitter followers, however, had little time for giving criminals a break. So, when I did a social media poll asking about “A one-time amnesty for the corrupt?” only 6% of the 3,666 votes cast said “Yes” to a fresh start while an overwhelming 94% answered “Hell no”.

“They are tired of thieves, of people in power getting away with murder,” explained Madonsela, now holder of the Law Faculty Trust Chair at Stellenbosch University (SU). The original idea was shared with my SU colleague when she did a stint at Harvard University, where a former mayor of Bolivia explained how they unravelled crime syndicates in that South American country. You do not go directly for the kingpins; you target the little guy such as the driver of the getaway car or the bank clerk who pointed out where the codes for the safe were kept. These small fries in the criminal chain are not going to spill the beans unless there is some offer of protection from prosecution. Offer them amnesty, and you get to the kingpins in the criminal world. That, at least, is the theory.

Is this perhaps the approach of our prosecuting authorities as the Hawks swoop on what appears to be the little guys? Will these small-time crooks be pressured to blow the whistle on the senior politicians and civil servants (I use the last word loosely) who, by all media accounts, are quivering in their boots? The problem, explains Madonsela, is how clever the masterminds have become. She uses the example of money laundering. Millions are paid to Belinda in London, from there it goes to Joe in Tunis, to Mary in Cape Town, and then to the crime boss in Johannesburg. It all looks legit and that is why you need someone in that long chain of corruption to come out and explain exactly what is going on.

There are real dangers to a young democracy when you put senior politicians in prison.

Frankly, I am really sick and tired of hearing yet another story on Carte Blanche or in newspaper headlines of the vile corruption in the land from dairy farms in the Free State to PPE tender fraud in Gauteng to the stripping of railway infrastructure just about everywhere. The occasional reports on the arrests of the little guys offer a nice soundbite for the nightly news, but the looting continues. If the prosecuting authorities can crack these syndicates by offering amnesty to those lower down in the crime hierarchy, then let’s do it.

That said, there are real dangers to a young democracy when you put senior politicians in prison. Even if they deserve to be there, the risk remains that such a practice can and will be interpreted as a convenient instrument for dealing with your political enemies. And once a country bows to that temptation it becomes a never-ending cycle of criminal and political recriminations rolled into one. Ask any one of those Latin American dictatorships to see how this works. It is, by the way, the reason why Donald Trump as an alleged tax-dodging fraud, will not end up in orange overalls; it is the bigger risk to democratic institutions that is being calculated even as his enablers, the little guys, so to speak, are being hauled off to prison.

As an education student, I was intrigued by another question. Does the granting of amnesty at any level of the criminal hierarchy guarantee that the crooks will learn their lesson? We have been down the amnesty road before in the case of political crimes committed by those who executed the will of the apartheid state and its so-called security apparatus; when the white government was dismantled, the motivation for such criminality collapsed. But the culture of impunity in the state apparatus did not and that is why I have my doubts that simply rounding up the guppies will be enough to put away the big fish.

Unless, of course, we have a president who is willing to take the enormous risk and allow for the prosecuting authorities to charge and arrest any of the big guys without fear or favour. One thing is certain, if our political leadership does take this bold step, it would have the overwhelming support of South Africans who are simply gatvol with the impunity of those in power. It is a gamble worth taking and a lesson worth learning for the sake of our beleaguered country.