Zuma's Election Opens Issue of Relevance of Moral Probity in Political Leadership

Article excerpt

BYLINE: Saliem Fakir

Much is being made in the media of Jacob Zuma's moral character, before and after the ANC's Polokwane conference, raising an interesting debate about the relevance of moral probity and its relationship with political effectiveness. The expectations are varied, and so are the criteria to judge the moral standing of a person in high office.

In South Africa, voters place a high premium on moral integrity for many reasons: we are a highly religious society; we come from a morally corrupt past; we have high levels of crime; we have the highest incidences of child abuse and rape in the world, and we do not want South Africa to go the way some African countries have gone, mired in corrupt politicians and despotic rule.

As a response to these anxieties, we invest a great many expectations in the moral character of the head of state or any other public figure - often to the point of saintliness. Inadvertently, this creates a cult of the pious personality. When these expectations are not met we discard any hope in politics, often displayed in active abstinence from voting or participation in political affairs.

It would seem too that among the electorate there is a perception that good morals make for a good political functionary, and we judge one political party against the other on the same basis - but the history of politics proves that this is an entirely spurious and false premise.

Politicians with bad personal morals can make for excellent politicians - US Presidents John F Kennedy and Bill Clinton would fit the bill; both were philanderers while in office.

Born-again Christian US President George W Bush would not have had a second term without the support of the Moral Majority (the Christian fundamentalist groupings in the US Bible Belt), and the high moral probity attached to his term.

Despite this, the Bush government turned out to be the most corrupt in US history. It led the country into an illegitimate war against Iraq in which blatant lies were told to the world (by doctoring intelligence reports) and the US, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, despite proof to the contrary.

US Congress was coaxed into signing off billions of taxpayers' dollars to fight the "war on terror", with little to show for it, except handsome rewards for large multinational corporations.

Bush's moral standing has all but collapsed, and his conduct has left the image of the US in tatters.

Italy's Silvio Berlusconi literally bought himself into power using the billions from his media empire. His term as prime minister caused much outrage on the part of Italians and Europeans alike. Berlusconi used his power to quash corruption charges against him by changing the law.

Britain's Tony Blair started off with solid moral credentials, only to lose them in his second term over his policies on Iraq. Recently, the Guardian newspaper exposed Blair's complicity in quashing an investigation into bribery in the arms deal between members of the Saudi Arabian royal family and the British arms company BAe systems.

The same company is being investigated by the UK Serious Fraud Office for bribery in the South African arms deal.

Zuma has been accused of having a corrupt relation with Schabir Shaik and of improper personal conduct, by having sex with an HIV-positive woman who accused him of rape. …