An absence of swift action over Electoral Commission chairwoman Pansy Tlakula will allow future exploitation of doubt about the commission, writes Pierre de Vos.
The findings of the Electoral Court that the chairperson of South Africa’s Electoral Commission, Pansy Tlakula, acted unlawfully and is hence guilty of misconduct warranting removal from office, leaves the National Assembly with a stark choice.
Either it ignores the damning findings of impropriety on the part of Tlakula, made by three different independent bodies, and destroys the credibility of the Electoral Commission, or it takes action against Tlakula and recommends her removal from office.
The judgment of the Electoral Court in United Democratic Movement and Others versus Tlakula and Another is another spectacular vindication of the public protector and the work she does.
In essence the judgment confirmed the findings of the public protector as well as of an independent report commissioned by the Treasury, leaving little doubt that advocate Pansy Tlakula abused her position, when she was chief executive of the Electoral Commission, to ensure the awarding of a lease to a company in which her “friend” and business partner had a substantial stake.
This was a costly favour done for a “friend” at taxpayers’ expense. The court confirmed that the unlawful flouting of prescribed procedures in securing the lease of new premises for the commission led to the wasting of at least R130.8 million of public money.
Moreover, as chief executive of the commission, Tlakula also secured R59 918 380 worth of furnishings for the new office without following the required tender procedure.
As the court pointed out, the expenses appear to have been incurred “with little or no regard to what the actual cost was”.
In fact, Tlakula “had little concern for what things cost and merely bought what (she) wanted”.
This included R957 000 spent on “brushed steel plant pots” (nice to have, I guess); R482 942 on gym equipment; and, tellingly, no less than R898 942 on office furnishings for Tlakula’s office.
The court found that this wasting of money was not a mere mistake and could not be justified on the basis that Tlakula was ignorant of the process.
She deliberately flouted the law with the aim of favouring a company in which her “friend” had a stake. The court summarised the matter as follows:
“Having deliberately embarked upon an attenuated tender process, the respondent (Tlakula) chose not to abide by the requirements of the law. The respondent’s reference to an error having been made (in hindsight) is refuted by her own evidence that she deliberately took the decision not to insist on the lawful procurement process to be followed. She chose not to abide by the law. Her actions in this regard are unlawful and as such, in our view, constitute misconduct. Save for the urgency issue, which is untenable, the respondent provides no justification for her deliberate decision to break the law. Once the respondent had taken this unjustifiable decision, a plethora of unlawful actions followed. They include the failure to advertise the requirements of the commission according to the law and a failure to implement the three tiers of bid specification, evaluation and determination.”
Perhaps the most damning aspect of the judgment is that it found that in defending herself advocate Tlakula was less than honest. She previously provided one explanation of her actions to the National Assembly (that she deliberately circumvented the prescribed procedures because of the urgency of the matter) before providing a completely contradictory explanation to the Electoral Court (that she made an honest mistake as she was unaware what the prescribed procedures were).
“The striking incredulity of the respondent’s version of the making of a mistake appears to be an ex post facto attempt to justify that which cannot be rationally explained. The respondent cannot exercise a discretion to deliberately not follow the prescripts and then claim that not to have done so was simply a mistake. One of the versions cannot be true.”
In the face of a finding by a forensic report that the “procurement process followed was not fair, equitable, transparent, competitive, or cost-efficient” and that “some of the expenditure could have been avoided had reasonable care been taken”, the court rejected claims by Tlakula that the winning bidder was not unlawfully favoured by her actions and that her actions did not lead to a loss of funds by the Electoral Commission, stating: “Objectively, this statement, made under oath by the respondent, is untrue.”
The judgment does not explain why Tlakula would have flouted the law in such a blatant manner, wasting millions of public funds in the process. However, it does quote from a recent Constitutional Court judgment, which explains why following prescribed tender procedures are so important.
In AllPay Consolidated Investment Holdings (Pty) Ltd and Others versus Chief Executive Officer, South African Social Security Agency and Others, the Constitutional Court said:
“Deviations from fair process may themselves all too often be symptoms of corruption or malfeasance in the process. In other words, an unfair process may betoken a deliberately skewed process. Hence, insistence on compliance with process formalities has a three-fold purpose: (a) it ensures fairness to participants in the bid process; (b) it enhances the likelihood of efficiency and optimality in the outcome; and (c) it serves as a guardian against a process skewed by corrupt influences.”
In terms of section 7 (3) (a) of the Electoral Commission Act, the recommendation by the Electoral Court must now trigger a process in which the relevant committee of the National Assembly must first decide whether to accept or reject the factual findings of misconduct made by three independent investigations against Tlakula.
If the National Assembly accepts the factual findings of unlawful action and misconduct, then it must decide whether to recommend to the president that she be removed from office.
Given the findings against her, it would be troubling if the National Assembly failed to act against Tlakula. The reasons for this conclusion are spelt out by the Electoral Court.
First, the court found that the conduct of Tlakula “risks the impairing of public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the commission”.
In the absence of swift action, perceptions that the independence of the commission has been tainted may well take hold. Moreover, Tlakula “compromised the integrity and independence of the commission in violation of a requirement that such integrity and impartiality must be above suspicion and beyond question”.
In ex parte, Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly: In re Certification of the Amended Text of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, the Constitutional Court, explained why the integrity of a body like the Electoral Commission was so important:
They perform sensitive functions which require their independence and impartiality to be beyond question, and to be protected by stringent provisions in the constitution.
It is not only where the independence and impartiality of the commission is in fact compromised that the National Assembly would have a duty to act. The mere “appearance or perception” of a lack of independence or impartiality will be devastating for the credibility of the commission. Quoting from a Canadian judgment, the court explained the matter as follows:
“Both independence and impartiality are fundamental not only to the capacity to do justice in a particular case but also to individual and public confidence in the administration of justice. Without that confidence, the system cannot command the respect and acceptance that are essential to its effective operation. It is, therefore, important that a tribunal should be perceived as independent, as well as impartial, and that the test for independence should include that perception.”
There is absolutely no evidence that the integrity of the recent election was compromised by Tlakula’s involvement in helping to oversee it. In the absence of evidence that the voting or counting process was not free and fair, the integrity of the election is therefore not at stake.
But because perceptions matter, the various findings of unlawful conduct, and especially the findings by the court which casts doubt on the honesty of Tlakula, now require swift action from the National Assembly to restore confidence in the Electoral Commission.
In the absence of such swift conduct, those who are not happy with the outcome of a particular election will exploit the doubt about the integrity and impartiality of the chairperson of the Electoral Commission to challenge the validity of electoral outcomes. That will be bad for democracy and bad for South Africa.
* Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Cape Town.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.