Cunning foxes and dirty dogs

20 October 2011 - 02:26 By Brendan Boyle

Liam Fox, the British secretary of state for defence, has been felled by a relationship uncannily similar to Jacob Zuma's relationship with Schabir Shaik.

Fox had a shadow just as Zuma did while he was serving in the KwaZulu-Natal cabinet, but still had tradable links to the national government where the country's biggest-ever single arms contract was being negotiated.

And Fox's shadow - his former roommate and best man Adam Werritty - seems from Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell's explosive report to have operated much as Shaik did when he had Zuma's ear and his diary: he was always in the wings, tipping a nod and a wink to those trying to reach his principal and arranging useful chance encounters.

Fox resigned from Prime Minister David Cameron's cabinet on Friday after a long battle to salvage his career from the escalating row over his relationship with Werritty. This was shortly before the O'Donnell report publicly confirmed that Werritty had popped up almost everywhere that Fox travelled abroad, brandishing a card with a government crest which styled him adviser to the minister of defence.

"Dr Fox's actions clearly constitute a breach of the ministerial code," O'Donnell said.

In fact, there was no formal relationship. Fox and Werritty were close friends and Werritty sat in on many meetings he had no right to attend, but he held no government position, drew no salary and was not entitled to the card he dropped wherever the two went together.

Whereas Shaik and his company directly funded Zuma's lifestyle, Fox introduced his friend to potential donors, who ended up contributing to Werritty's defence-related company, Pargav.

As Shaik did with Zuma, Werritty played up his friendship and his almost ubiquitous presence at Fox's shoulder to suggest that he had official authority, when all he had was personal influence over a man somehow in his thrall.

The glaring difference now, of course, is that Fox has resigned after acknowledging a serious "error of judgment". Zuma, however, went on after Shaik's abuse of their association was exposed to become leader of the ruling party and president of the country.

We have yet to see whether Fox will abandon his friendship with Werritty as Zuma did his with Shaik.

It is also possible, if evidence emerges of unlawful benefit to Werritty from his misrepresented relationship with Fox, that criminal charges could follow for the friend in the wings as they did for Shaik, who is serving out a comfortable parole at home after being convicted of corruptly using his friendship with Zuma.

The Fox story has interested me mostly because it confirms that we really are not that special in the global world.

As we swing from euphoria to despair, we really are just like everyone else, with the same potential to be great and the same propensity for failure.

We thought we were especially good when we negotiated the transition from apartheid to democracy relatively peacefully and together designed a model constitution that would make sure we were never thrown back into oppression.

We thought we were especially bad when waves of black economic empowerment created a few billionaires, but left the majority ever further behind in abject poverty while soaring crime drove tens of thousands of the best educated and most productive South Africans into exile in the Antipodes and elsewhere.

Our opinion of ourselves soared again when we hosted a Soccer World Cup flawed only by the failure of our own team to get past the first round. After the guests had left it crashed as the reality of pervasive corruption returned to become the defining characteristic of our self-esteem.

Some might argue that the Fox-Werritty syndrome is more prevalent here than in Britain and other established democracies, but is it?

Perhaps the reality is just that opportunities present themselves more readily here, where we are still trying to establish the rules of engagement, than they do in other countries and that every nation has a similarly high proportion of its population willing to take any gap available.

It is becoming common to bewail a lack of progress in 17 years of democracy, but the task inherited from white rule is so immense that two or three decades of elected majority government really will not be enough to wipe out every trace of legislated inequity.

We are different to Britain as we are different to Russia, Brazil and Nigeria, but we are neither better nor worse as a nation than any other. We have our share of saints and of sinners, with most of us comfortably somewhere in between.

We can make this country great by hanging onto a good opinion of ourselves and setting ourselves the high standards that opinion demands.

If we acknowledge that ours is a work in progress while Britain is a long-established democracy with rules written, developed and honed over centuries, we should be able to keep our focus on the climb towards stable and productive equity protected by a set of rules. And those rules would, because of their general acceptance across society, force the people like Fox who do emerge among us to hang their heads and go.