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Op-eds

Hero? Villain? Who gets to blow that strong whistle?

  • Geoff
When a bold man raises his head too far above the parapet, he risks having his head chopped off. By either side.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Jan 24, 2019

Angelo Agrizzi, the key whistleblower on corruption in the ANC and elsewhere, who is appearing at Judge Zondo’s Commission into State Capture, must be aware of this irony.

He has become a champion of a strange kind to some. He will be remembered not only for past wrongdoing as chief operating officer of Bosasa, a channel for billions in laundered money, but for his act of coming clean about the slew of powerful individuals involved, many of whom are struggle heroes who want him to shut up. The death threats against him are not surprising.

His revelations debunk the naïve notion that struggle heroes are by default honourable people. A procession of them have turned out to be dirty and corrupt, ranging from former President Jacob Zuma downwards. People ask: is there anybody out there who is still to be trusted?

It is confusing, this switching of identities from hero to scoundrel, and vice versa. It’s a theme of our times. Perhaps life was always like that, but it is often heard around dinner tables nowadays that it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad. A nostalgia exists for less confusing days.

What to do with the Watson family from the Eastern Cape, for example, who bravely opposed apartheid, and were members of the then-banned ANC and South African Communist Party?

“Cheeky” Watson refused to participate in trials for the 1976 Springbok team, instead playing rugby in black townships, thus breaking segregation laws. This made him a local hero. Later, he used his high-level contacts to accumulate huge, illegal wealth.

During apartheid, most people knew the racist system was bad, whether they opposed it or not. During World War II, most knew Germany was an enemy. In South Africa today, ordinary people instinctively reject corruption, but don’t appreciate its extent as the biggest threat to the country. They don’t realise that, more than racism, corruption could destroy our country.

The villain-hero dichotomy goes beyond our borders. Robert Mugabe, once a hero of Zimbabwe’s struggle to rid his country of the English oppressors, changed into the villain once he got used to being in power. He almost destroyed the country with corruption and authoritarian rule, and by refusing to relinquish power. Zimbabwe has since stumbled from one catastrophe to another. However, many today long for the stability he brought.

The identity switching cuts across generation and race. A lecturer at Wits University says that when she mentions the name of anti-apartheid music icon Johnny Clegg to black students, they call him an “old white man” not worth knowing about, denying him another identity regardless of what he did. Other white faculty report similar occurrences. Minority communities, such as Jews and Greeks, experience similar blanket labelling, with little attempt at unpicking nuances.

Confusion about identity isn’t just political, but social. Billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, was once regarded as the hero who would democratise information and communication away from the clutches of people with nefarious interests. Facebook is so intertwined with modern life, one cannot imagine being without it. But it is as much a channel for hate as for good – a ‘Big Brother’ collecting data about people and sinisterly watching their habits. Zuckerberg might be seen by future historians as a Stalin manipulating the masses rather than a hero.

Is the Zondo enquiry useful or futile for tackling corruption? There is no way to know yet, but if it gives the Agrizzis of this world a strong enough whistle to blow, it might just be the former.

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