JOHANNESBURG – The African National Congress' "moral authority has been eroded" by a string of corruption allegations, Ireland's former president said Sunday, telling South Africa's governing party to back away from a proposed official secrets law and confront poverty and inequality in the nation.
Mary Robinson used a speech Sunday in Cape Town at an event honoring Nelson Mandela, the ANC's iconic political leader, to try and prod his party's focus toward social justice. While acknowledging the party's long history at bringing true democracy to the country, Robinson said South Africa remains "a nation of paradoxes" where economic opportunities remain few for the nation's youth.
"Those questions need to be addressed if South Africa's hard-fought democracy is to be sustained for generations to come," she said.
Robinson, also a former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, focused first on South Africa's proposed official secrets law. The bill, passed by lawmakers in November, makes it a crime to divulge state secrets, while not allowing for those who break the law to avoid going to jail if they argue they acted in the public interest. The bill also makes it a crime for an official to withhold information to conceal wrongdoing or incompetence, or merely to avoid embarrassment.
The bill comes as the ANC faces a string of corruption allegations, and the nation has seen its top police official, a longtime ANC member, convicted. The government has also become more aggressive in going after journalists.
The bill's critics have included two Nobel prizewinners: retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a peace laureate, and literature laureate Nadine Gordimer. The office of Nelson Mandela, a Nobel peace laureate himself, has also expressed reservations about the bill.
"If you enact a law that cloaks the workings of state actors, that interferes with press freedom to investigate corruption, that stifles efforts by whistleblowers to expose corruption, you are sure to increase those levels of corruption tomorrow," Robinson said. "The public interest demands that basic truth, of having both transparency and accountability in government. Secrecy is the enemy of truth in this regard."
In her speech — the keynote address at the 10th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture — Robinson also touched on South Africa's high crime rate and the unending poverty for many in the nation, years after the end of apartheid. While applauding ANC for reaching power, she said much remains to be done.
"Sadly, though, in recent years my South African friends tell me the ANC's moral authority has been eroded, tainted by allegations of corruption, a temporary betrayal of its history," Robinson said. "And meanwhile, there remains, in the transformation process, much unfinished business. We cannot deny that South Africa faces serious problems."
Mandela, who was imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against apartheid before becoming the nation's president in the country's first fully democratic vote in 1994, did not attend the lecture. Now 94, he has retired from public life and lives in his home village of Qunu.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.