Sex scandals: Thin line between public, private life

THIS week’s casualty is undoubtedly Zwelinzima Vavi. For the past two weeks the Cosatu secretary-general has been in the limelight for all the wrong reasons.

Report by Sukoluhle Nyathi

It all began two weeks ago when Vavi’s sex scandal was splashed onto front pages of Sunday newspapers with head-turning headlines.

The plot thickened as the 26-year-old woman, a subordinate, threw rape allegations into the mix.

You need to live in South Africa to understand the enormity of the rape problem. Estimations are that in every four minutes a woman is raped. Inferences have been drawn that at least 40% of women will be raped in their lifetime.

The rape element immediately evoked the memory of President Jacob Zuma’s high-profile 2006 rape case. Thoughts of political espionage and sabotage quickly began to take root in peoples’ minds.

However, these were quickly dismissed as the woman in question withdrew rape allegations and agreed it was consensual sex between two married consenting adults. A rather public apology was made by Vavi followed by a more revealing confession on his adultery on Carte Blanche.

At face value there is nothing new here. All of us are aware of the so called “red carpet” interviews. For the more naïve among us; this is where an employer hires a candidate based on coital abilities as opposed to academic credentials or skills relevant to the job. All of us know of and others have been involved in illicit encounters in office premises.

Then off course there are those who have been unfortunate enough to have been filmed in the act. I lose count of the number of South African Police (SAP) officers who have been caught with their pants down in compromising positions.

Police aside, the office environment has become the breeding ground for the most dangerous sexual liaisons. Yet here we are; shocked and outraged at the Vavi incident. Why is this so? Well the simple answer is because he is a public figure who occupies a high public office. When one occupies a public office with such bearing and authority, there are many responsibilities that come with it.

One is being a moral compass and ethical beam to the public realm in which one plays.

Vavi is a man of humble origins born on December 20th 1962 in a small village in the Northern Cape. He was a mere farm labourer who later found employment in the mining industry and this is how he ended up as a member of the National Union of Mine Workers. The turning point came when he was fired from AngloGold in 1987 after a massive strike.

It was during this time that he joined the Cosatu and literally rose through the ranks. He assumed the position of secretary-general in 1999. Vavi has undoubtedly been the militant voice of the working classes and civic society.

He is greatly admired in some circles and despised in others. However, all will agree that this transgression puts a blemish on his otherwise squeaky clean reputation.

As an ardent campaigner against HIV, that picture of him publicly taking an HIV test and then going on to have unprotected sex is deeply compromised.

There is a thin line between public life and private life for those in public office. Those sometimes careless decisions made in private dark moments can often have a detrimental bearing on their public role. Rewind to 2011 when Fikile Mbalula, Sports minister, was embroiled in a sex scandal with a 27-year-old model.

What made the condemnation more compelling was that Mbalula had made a persuasive speech on fidelity on Worlds Aids Day only to impregnate a 27-year-old girl outside of his marriage.

Even Bill Clinton (American) during his tenure as President almost blighted his political achievements with his extra marital affair with the 22-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

However, even the unmarried cannot escape unscathed.

Remember how former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s rather colourful love life was painted all over town and used to discredit his personality and credibility to lead the country?

Yet at the time he was also single and searching? Yes, everyone is human. We all have a lapse in judgment. However, when one is in the public sphere the judgment on private conduct is harsher.

As I write there are people baying for Vavi’s blood calling him to resign. So, as much as we like to declare that a public figure has a right to their privacy and a private life, it is essential to ensure that their private life does not destroy their public persona.

It takes years to build a name and a sound reputation, but in days one can fall from grace into disgrace.

 Sukoluhle Nyathi is the author of the novel The Polygamist. You can follow her @SueNyathi

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