Our ‘hero’ Suu Kyi failed us dismally – is Cyril next?
The moral failure of a once revered leader reminds us of the heartbreaking fallibility of Nene and our other heroes
It is our heroes, the ones we adore, who have the capacity to break our hearts.
At the beginning of September Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, describing himself as “elderly, decrepit and formally retired”, wrote a letter of love and heartbreak to his own “fave”, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar. It was a letter at once heartbreaking and heartbroken, disappointed and dismayed. It was a letter suffused with a question that many of us here in SA often, as we watch our heroes stumble and fall at the altar of greed and corruption, ask ourselves: What happened to you? What happened to us?
Aung San Suu Kyi has been a hero to many of us. Lauded by the international community after decades of imprisonment, torture, house arrest and repression by the military junta that ruled her country, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her fight for democracy in Myanmar. After political reforms she became the country’s civilian leader in a negotiated process, with the army retaining a significant amount of power.
The past year has shown us clearly that even the revered Suu Kyi has feet of clay. We now know in excruciating detail, thanks to the United Nations’ investigations, that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have been forcibly evicted from their homes, that thousands have been maimed and many women gang-raped, tortured and killed by the country’s army.
Astonishingly, Suu Kyi has not only flatly denied the atrocities but has gone on to refuse or restrict access into the country for international investigators and journalists. She has defended the military and has denied humanitarian aid for the Rohingya.
Worldwide, activists are shocked. This is the woman who has for decades been considered the moral and ethical equivalent of a Nelson Mandela or a Desmond Tutu. No more.
Tutu wrote to Aung San Suu Kyi: “For years I had a photograph of you on my desk to remind me of the injustice and sacrifice you endured out of your love and commitment for Myanmar’s people. You symbolised righteousness.
“Your emergence into public life allayed our concerns about violence being perpetrated against members of the Rohingya. But what some have called ‘ethnic cleansing’ and others ‘a slow genocide’ has persisted – and recently accelerated.
“It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country. If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
Tutu’s voice is one of the most prominent and strident among a growing list calling on Suu Kyi to do more to protect the Rohingya. None of it seems to be getting through to this erstwhile icon of the global struggle for social justice.
What happened to her?
For many of us, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene is a hero. Yet, for years he has lied about his association with the Guptas. He sat and had tea with them – again and again and again. It was clearly more than just tea that was going on between them.
Who is next? Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of our country, was Jacob Zuma’s number two for three years. He was ANC deputy president for five years while state capture was on steroids. He has claimed that he did not know the extent of the rot. When the signs were so obvious? Will he be next to be found to have feet of clay?
We don’t know, but the question makes the lessons to be learnt from Aung San Suu Kyi and Nhlanhla Nene clear and numerous. First, no leader or political party is eternally or wholly incorruptible. We should not turn our political leaders into cults. Leaders are only “good” to the extent that they build and empower institutions of accountability in their countries.
Suu Kyi’s election victory in Myanmar was, for this reason, hollow. The army remained in charge. Institutions of democracy remain weak. Suu Kyi was used as sugar coating.
Here at home, Ramaphosa and the “good guys” in the ANC should be judged by how fast and how deeply they return our institutions of accountability – the Hawks, the NPA, the revenue service – and many others to their rightful place in society and out of the clutches of the Zumas and other “bad guys”.
Our heroes are human. They can fail themselves, and they will fail us too. Strong and durable institutions are the only way that all of us can be held accountable.