There’s hope after corruption, Feinstein affirms
Now living in England, he was in South Africa to speak at the Daily Maverick’s The Gathering at the Sandton Convention Centre last Thursday.
“The community should be focused on addressing the historical legacy of apartheid, by providing opportunities for those who were most disadvantaged by the country’s racist system, and thereby addressing the massive inequalities that continue to bedevil the country,” the Capetonian-at-heart, who is now based in London, told the SA Jewish Report.
While he was critical of the powers-that-be, Feinstein was refreshingly optimistic about the capacity for change and action still possible for ordinary South Africans.
At The Gathering, he delivered incisive comments on the state of South Africa’s political landscape – as well as placing it in a global context. He mused that if President Jacob Zuma succeeded with his proposed nuclear deal with Russia, it would “make the arms deal seem like small change”.
Feinstein commented that if there was any real interest in fulfilling South Africa’s power requirements, or preventing possible corruption, “the last two people on the planet one would want negotiating such a deal, are Messrs Vladimir Putin and Jacob Zuma.”
As such, he said, the deal was not based on power needs. “No, just like the arms deal, it is what we want to meet our patronage and corruption needs.”
As a whole, he said, the ANC and South African government had become a vehicle for “self-enrichment and personal aggrandisement”. And the National Prosecuting Authority and other oversight institutions, he maintained “contort their spineless bodies to pretend blissful ignorance that ensures impunity for the looters of the state”.
The true tragedy of South Africa, observed Feinstein, was not that it had fallen into corruption – rather it was “the speed and enthusiasm with which, after 1994, we adopted the very tawdry global norms of politics”.
South Africa had allowed itself to be tainted by the “systemic corruption on a truly gargantuan scale” which had spread globally.
Yet, he suggested, decisive action to rid South Africa of its rot was still possible.
Next month’s elective conference was the “final opportunity” for the ANC to show South Africans that it favoured “the nation over the greed of party leaders, the Constitution over the corrupt mechanism of the state, the people over patronage”.
When it came to corrupt politicians, “this base, egregious theft should result in removal from office, criminal trial and imprisonment”, said Feinstein.
It was also time to discard any belief that corruption remained a “victimless crime”.
The human cost came from other state projects that were then compromised by the loss of stolen funds. “We should never forget those who lost their lives in the Gauteng mental health fiasco,” entreated Feinstein, in citing the Life Esidimeni scandal as the most recent example of the long tentacles of corruption’s clutches.
Following his 2001 resignation from the ANC, in protest at the cover-up of the country’s arms deal, Feinstein has pursued a career in both writing and the exposé of the global arms trade.
Following his memoir, After the Party, his most recent book, The Shadow World, about the global arms trade, has also been turned into a documentary. He currently serves as executive director of Corruption Watch UK.
At The Gathering, Feinstein explained that the arms trade had become a focus of his activism because of its darkly paradoxical nature. “Contrary to what we might read in the media and contrary to what we might see in Hollywood films and on our television screens, the world is actually more peaceful than it’s been at any time in human history – but we sell more weapons than we ever have … Why is that?”
A very small elite was manufacturing the trade through a “fear industry”, he suggested.
“Politicians, business executives and the intermediaries, do things in the arms trade, all of which is secret, behind a veil of national security, that they wouldn’t dare do in other trades – even corrupt other trades like oil and construction.
Yes, Feinstein was assertive in proposing that the power to fight against this evil, still lay in the hands and hearts of ordinary citizens. “We take to the streets first of all,” he advocated.
The courts and the media were also friends in the fight against corruption.
Even the possibility of withholding a percentage of tax that was being funnelled to unethical outcomes, was something to consider.
“Paying tax is very important in having a decent society – but you withhold tax for the things you find unacceptable. I think that if this continues in this country, we have to start thinking about things like that.”
Poignantly reflecting on his own struggles in apartheid, Feinstein reminded the audience that South Africa’s history had already proved that the impossible was realisable. “Let’s not forget what we have done in this country; we have changed remarkable things.
“I had to leave this country in 1986 because I did not want to serve in the apartheid army. I remember driving over Chapman’s Peak Drive in Cape Town and thinking I won’t see this county again: Apartheid is not going to disappear in my lifetime…
“If somebody had said to me:‘“No! No! In nine years’ time, you’ll be back in the country; the ANC will be in power and Nelson Mandela will be your president’, I would have recommended that they get a strait jacket.
“…But the reality is that that is what happened – and the reality is that we remain a highly politicised and a highly politically active country.”
Speaking this week to the Jewish Report, Feinstein reminisced about some of his memories and ties to the South African Jewish community.
Describing his family as “quite secular but culturally very Jewish”, Feinstein said that his mother’s legacy as a Holocaust survivor had fundamentally shaped his particular political beliefs.
“My mother’s history [was] one of a very small number of Jews who survived the Second World War in Vienna, where she lived. She lost more than 30 relatives in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt.”
Until the present, he remains a “keen observer” of the SA Holocaust Museum, “which I believe is an extraordinary resource for teaching about the Holocaust and the perils of racism of any sort”.
Childhood memories of Jewish delis and “delicious meals” of chopped herring, chopped liver and other traditions delights, have continued to tantalise Feinstein’s taste-buds until today.
On a more serious note, Feinstein characterised his Jewish identity as having forged a moral code against “intolerance, injustice and inequality
“In a world in which anti-Semitism and Islamophobia remain prominent, and in which racism is again seen and heard from among the world’s most powerful political leaders, I believe that Jews should be at the forefront of speaking out against these evils.”