Stories to do with fishing rights seem to attract clichés like a vrot snoek draws flies, as Krisjan Lemmer might say.

In the past few weeks, the M&G has run several stories about the goings on in this highly profitable world, and headlines have been full of references to “fishy deals”, people “fishing in troubled waters” or “trawling for politicians” and others. 
One of the stories dealt with a troubled fishing venture associated with the mining entrepreneur Brett Kebble, who was tragically murdered this week, which drew a lengthy complaint.

Readers may have seen the “matter of fact” that appeared subsequently, in which the paper tried to explain the complexities of boat ownership, licencing in the tuna and swordfish fishery, as well as some other issues.

The complaint from the company involved, South Atlantic Fisheries (Safco) referred to a whole string of issues, and the “matter of fact” dealt only with those I felt had some merit.  One of the others centred on the claim that there had been “allegations of attempts to use political influence” by the company during the course of its licence application.  It cited a letter in which the company made its case to Marine and Coastal Management and that was also copied to Northern Cape premiers, past and present.

In its complaint, the company wrote that it had lobbied “in a perfectly open and transparent, ethical and legally compliant manner”.

I felt that there was no basis for complaint here.  If they lobbied openly and transparently, there could be no objection to the public knowing about it. 

Besides, a company that boasts the involvement of as many people with prominent ANC backgrounds as this one does, and lobbies ANC premiers, can hardly complain when this is construed as an attempt to use political influence. What is lobbying if not the use of influence? The report did not suggest it had been improper.

The complaint raised a broader issue, too – the handling of stories on the murky interface between business and politics.

Business elites all over the world know the value of connections in high places.  In the US, the electoral system can’t seem to operate without candidates getting massive financial support from business.  Anybody who thinks those donations are made simply out of a commitment to democracy probably also believes in the tooth fairy.

In South Africa, the connections between government and business are particularly close.  There’s a growing list of people for whom a stint in government has been a stepping stone to megabucks in the private sector. 

Our new democracy lacks clear guidelines about what is proper and what is not.  There are rules governing private interests by members of the executive and others and the ANC has adopted a policy insisting on a “cooling off period” for people leaving government.  

But many other areas remain undefined.  The major parties have resisted calls for the proper regulation of donations by business, and there is no clarity on the business interests of party officials, or the way in which spouses and relatives should solicit government business, as the M&G reported last week

Some of this confusion also marks the discussion around former deputy president Jacob Zuma. Innocent until proven guilty, his supporters say, sometimes arguing that he should have been left in his job until the legal process is complete.  They miss the point that guilt is not at issue yet – it is impossible to function effectively in such a high office while facing charges.  What would he be doing: nip out of a cabinet meeting to appear in court? 

It is often said that while implementation is patchy, South Africa has great policies in many area. One area where policies are still very uncertain is the issue of the morality expected of public representatives, particularly when it comes to money. 

We need high standards, and they will only be developed in a vigorous public debate.   While these areas are still relatively undefined, we can only decide what is appropriate if we have as much information as possible on what is actually going on:  whose cousin is building a mining empire, and which former director general is going into business with which former minister. 

In the context of the Safco story, we may not be able to say with certainty what lobbying by former politicians turned businessmen is acceptable and what is not, but we should certainly put as much as possible into the public domain. 

In any event, there’s a strong argument for saying that citizens need to know what the elite is doing, even if it’s above board.  The bright light of public attention has an amazing ability to keep honest people on the straight and narrow.

* This column first appeared in the M&G as The Ombud on Septemer 30, 2005.