Pravin Gordhan. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Pravin Gordhan. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

THE infancy of our constitutional democracy has led to our country confronting various challenges without precedent to rely on for guidance. Among these challenges has been how to handle the matter, it is not difficult to see that the media has, instead of applying the principle of presumption of innocence until proven guilty, declared Gordhan innocent and incapable of being proven otherwise of President Jacob Zuma and the National Assembly, whose actions were found by the Constitutional Court to be inconsistent with the Constitution of SA.

And most recently, the matter involving Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and the Hawks has occupied South African public discourse. However, unlike most challenges facing our country, there is precedent on how to handle a matter of this kind. The manner in which the media has framed the narrative around this issue is of great concern, particularly because it appears to assume that there is no precedent.

Former president Thabo Mbeki’s intervention during the investigation and subsequent arrest of the former national police commissioner, the late Jackie Selebi, provides the country with lessons on how to handle matters relating to criminal investigations or arrests involving state agencies and/or senior government officials.

When then public prosecutions head Vusi Pikoli obtained a warrant of arrest for Selebi, Mbeki appealed for time to create an environment that would allow Pikoli to execute the warrant in a manner that would not adversely affect national security. This involved, among other things, engaging and obtaining co-operation from the leadership of the police to allow the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to carry out its work.

During the course of the investigation the president intervened as tension developed between investigators and the leadership of the police. This intervention by the president allowed both sides to access documents and various other items of evidence required from the offices of the police.

Unfortunately, the sensational manner in which the media responded to the Pikoli and Selebi case robbed the country of an opportunity to draw necessary lessons to guide us in the future. Instead of engaging the merits of the decision taken by Mbeki, the media decided to spread moral panic.

Moral panic is a concept coined by the sociologist Stanley Cohen in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, and refers to an exaggerated and distorted overreaction to an action or actions of a particular person or people, thus creating public anxiety. The people who are the subject of moral panic become the folk devils or social deviants whose actions are a threat to societal norms and values.

Powerful or influential people are then enlisted to publicly condemn the actions of the folk devils, in order to rally the rest of society.

Cohen states that "the media have long operated as agents of moral indignation in their own right: even if they are not self-consciously engaged in crusading or muck-raking, their very reporting of certain ‘facts’ can be sufficient to generate concern, anxiety, indignation or panic".

The incidents cited above are just two examples where the South African media, "as agents of moral indignation in their own right", project some parties as a folk heroes (Pikoli and Gordhan) and others as a folk devils (Mbeki and the Hawks), without any interest in the facts or principle at hand.

It is important to qualify here that one is not discussing the merits of the case involving the Hawks and Gordhan. However, it is not difficult to see that the media has, instead of applying the principle of presumption of innocence until proven guilty, declared Gordhan innocent and incapable of being proven otherwise.

Nobody can conclusively prove that there was no wrongdoing in the operations of the so called South African Revenue Service (SARS) "rogue" unit. Even though former finance minister Trevor Manuel has confirmed that SARS needed the unit and that it was formed within the framework of the law, he has not been able to say the same of its operations. We also know that former minister Nhlanhla Nene shut down the unit after advocate Muzi Sikhakhane and an advisory panel set up by the minister questioned the legality of some of its operations.

It therefore stands to reason that, given the inconclusive facts before us, an investigation on this matter should be welcomed. If the law has been broken, those involved must be brought to book and if not, those accused must be allowed to clear their names.

The media, instead of reporting objectively on this matter, has not only chosen to side with Gordhan, but gone as far as calling on Zuma to intervene to stop the Hawks from investigating him.

Instead of stopping the investigation on Gordhan, perhaps Zuma should take lessons from former president Mbeki’s appeal to Pikoli and intervene only in so far as to ensure that the Hawks investigation is carried out in a manner that does not infringe on his rights and, most importantly, does not affect the country’s economy negatively.

Nobody is above the law, including the President. If the Hawks have evidence warranting an investigation, they must be given the space to investigate without fear or favour but within the remit of the law. Equally, like all citizens, Gordhan must be given space to clear his name.

• Gebe is chairperson of the Pan African Youth Dialogue.