Final Word

Public Protector should be a spy


Both the just retired Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, and her successor, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, have been accused of being spies – something they actually are supposed to be.

Detractors of both these women probably read incorrect motives into the work of the two officials because they themselves do not understand that the work of a spy can and should be to be the best spy possible.

Let’s look at the roots of word ‘spy’ and the noble function it implies.

The word arrived in Middle English during the first half of the 13th century as ‘spien’, a variant of ‘espien’ – the short unaccented vowel at the beginning of the word had been disappearing gradually. ‘Espien’ (‘to spy’) came from the Old French word espier, with the same meaning.

There is also the Old High German word spehon, meaning ‘to search out, examine or investigate and to keep a close watch’.

The root of the Old High German spehon is probably the Indo-European word spek, meaning ‘to observe’.

One of the first uses of the word was then indeed to describe someone who had to observe and collect information concerning the enemies of the state or of a group. It is the primary function of spies to deliver to the state information on its enemies in order to keep the state safe.

And who can claim that corruption and so-called state captures are not among the foremost enemies of the modern, democratic South African state? Unfortunately, in the present South Africa these enemies seem be from within and should be the focus of some of our spies – especially in the office of the Public Protector.

In this regard, while some South Africa political leaders and official and civil society institutions have declared war on corruption, consider the words of author Herman Melville in describing the work of spies:  “[They] are continually prowling about on all three decks, eager to spy out iniquities.”

South African tradition

One of the first spies to gain fame in South African history, and a man that utilised some of the latest technology of his time, the bicycle, was the Boer spy Danie Theron who observed the movements of British troops during the Anglo-Boer War.

On 6 March 2002, former president Nelson Mandela unveiled a new Danie Theron Monument near the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

In his speech, one of the very rare occasions on which he spoke Afrikaans in public, the former president paid homage to the fighting spirit of Danie Theron, his honesty, bravery and determination to do the right thing for his nation and his beliefs.

He also observed that the modern South Africa needs more Danie Therons in order to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

Final word

Hopefully the time will come when we will also see the unveiling of monuments for the ‘spies’ Madonsela and Mkhwebane. The former has already earned that honour despite the enemy within trying to besmudge her role as a spy of the highest order.

Time will tell if Mkhwebane will display Danie Theron-like courage.

by Piet Coetzer

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