The media have failed spectacularly to highlight the abuse of power now exposed to have been the work of the opponents of Jacob Zuma, writes Vusi Mona in Business Day.

Vusi Mona writes in Business Day:

WHEN major corporate scandals are
exposed, shareholders often ask: “Where were the auditors?” The justice
scandal exposed a few weeks ago about the existence of secret tapes
involving Bulelani Ngcuka and Leonard McCarthy plotting against Jacob
Zuma, should have the shareholders of SA Inc — the citizens — asking:
where was the media?

media itself should have reflected on the role it played, or failed to
play, during the unfolding of what was a disgraceful blot on our
democracy. Regrettably, there has been little, if any, meaningful
debate in this regard. Perhaps it has to do with our fear of
confronting our own flaws, both as citizens and the media.

all honesty, I should not be raising this issue now, especially after
Zuma’s certain ascent to the Presidency. After all, he has said we
should bury the hatchet and move on as a nation. But is it that simple?
Can we confront the future without dealing with our past demons?

is no doubt in my mind that when Ngcuka, McCarthy and their friends
abused the prosecuting authority, most in the media chose to look the
other way. Members of the Fourth Estate cannot plead ignorance about
how the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) was used to settle
political scores.

of the country’s black editors were present in a Sandton hotel room in
July 2003 where this abuse — disguised as an off-the-record briefing —
should have been obvious even to a rookie journalist. Instead, they
chose to be lapdogs. But then, NPA bosses and spin doctors were damn
good at getting the media to hate people who were being oppressed and
love those who were doing the oppressing.

took the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) to awaken the watchdogs and
South Africans to the fact that something sinister was happening. To
use the cartoonist Zapiro’s hyperbolic imagery, the justice system was
being raped. The difference is the perpetrators were not Zapiro’s
whipping boys — Zuma, the African National Congress, the South African
Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions — but
our men of virtue.

Ngcuka, McCarthy and their friends did to the NPA, and to Zuma, exposed
a shameful near remaking of the country’s prosecuting authority under
the previous administration.

The fight
against corruption was cynically used to mask a political contest and
manipulate the NPA in a manner that tore at our constitutional fabric.

seeming orders from “a big man at Shell House” and other external
influences, the NPA was expected to play a role not countenanced by our
constitution — meddling in politics.

unprecedented abuse of power, probably last seen during apartheid,
McCarthy, on a tight leash held by Ngcuka, butted up against — or
violated altogether — some of the constitutional requirements meant to
safeguard South Africans.

However, the violation of Zuma’s rights did not start with the taped conversations.

began in 2001 with leaks to the media by people masquerading as law
enforcers when they were, in fact, a private political army.

happened again in 2003, when Ngcuka held that off-the-record briefing
with a select group of black editors. Some of his comments at that
meeting were a shocking violation of Zuma’s rights.

rights were also violated when former justice minister Penuell Maduna
and Ngcuka announced there was a prima facie case against Zuma but it
was not winnable.

The effect of such
ambiguity, I wrote in City Press at that time, was that Zuma was “being
subjected to a sophisticated kind of vigilante justice”. Not far from
what Judge Chris Nicholson later called “bizarre”.

had called this style of justice, at the briefing with editors, the
“Pontius Pilate approach” — publicly washing his hands of Zuma but
leaving him in the court of public opinion. Alarm bells about this
peculiar approach to justice should have been sounded then by the

They did not. Instead, the
watchdogs were either tame or fast asleep while people’s rights were
being violated and justice contemptuously refashioned to fight
political battles.

tragedy is it all happened right under the noses of our watchdogs, at
times with blurred lines between the NPA and the Fourth Estate, the
Scorpions and some investigative journalists. SA has yet to grasp fully
the public cynicism and decay that was sown by the media playing proxy
in the battle between Zuma and the NPA.

the media may have the right to practise embedded journalism in
contests between the state and its citizens, one would expect it
should, at the very least, raise the red flag when the state violates
citizens’ rights. It is a role it will have to play under Zuma, or any
other president. The media should meet this expectation irrespective of
its dislike of the person whose rights are being violated.

In Zuma’s case, it failed this test and its reputation in this matter is as soiled as the NPA’s, McCarthy’s and Ngcuka’s.

then, one may be expecting too much of the media. It is not called the
mainstream media for no reason. Washington-based writer and musician
Jason Rosenbaum once said: “By nature, (the mainstream media) shies
away from the controversial or the extreme, even if that position
represents the truth.”

The problem is
that this goes against the public’s understanding of the media — and
the media’s self-characterisation — as watchdogs. The Fourth Estate,
not the NIA, should be at the forefront of exposing the abuse of state

• Mona is spokesman for the Rhema Church and a former editor of City Press. This column first appeared in Business Day on 5 May 2009.