Johannesburg - The Nkandla scandal appears to be shadowing the ANC wherever it goes in the run-up to next month’s general elections.
The saga featured prominently at Wits University on Thursday night during a political debate pitting ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, DA federal chairman Wilmot James and AgangSA leader Mamphela Ramphele.
The event, titled “How far have we come in the 20 years of democracy?”, is a partnership between Wits university, Independent Newspapers and eNCA.
Thursday night’s debate, the first of a series of public debates, was beamed live on eNCA in South Africa and across the continent.
A boisterous and exhilarating atmosphere pervaded the Wits University Great Hall an hour before the debate started, as a jovial crowd of supporters of the rival political parties chanted, sang and danced around in expectation of the contest.
With the rival supporters in full song in their bright-yellow, blue-and-green T-shirts and flags fluttering across the hall and taunting each other, the scene was set for what was to be a heated and robust debate just three weeks before the elections.
The debate got off to a rather lukewarm start with the leaders of the three political parties given two minutes each to outline their strategies for winning the elections.
The mercury went up drastically, though, when probing questions were directed at them.
Things started to hot up when someone from the floor asked Mantashe whether the adverse findings of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela on the R215 million security upgrades at President Jacob Zuma’s private Nkandla residence had dented the image of the ANC, and if it was a betrayal of the legacy of the late Nelson Mandela.
Mantashe appeared to stutter as he tried to give a long, winding answer referring to the discrepancies and similarities between Madonsela’s report with that of the inter-ministerial committee. He reiterated his explanation that the government’s inter-ministerial report had found that Zuma was not lying when he told Parliament that he had taken out a bond to build his home.
He also referred to Madonsela’s finding that Zuma’s brother had not benefited from the upgrades. However, he did not mention that the public protector had found that Zuma and his family had unduly benefited and failed to protect public funds from “obscenely excessive” upgrade costs.
Mantashe also said there were no findings of political interference in the Nkandla project. As he continued explaining, not convincingly, the crowd began to boo and jeer him in exasperation.
“I don’t have to say what they (the crowd) like,” Mantashe said, visibly embarrassed and irritated.
The booing and jeering from the crowd was such that even the host, Jeremy Maggs, had to intervene and ask Mantashe to answer the question directly. “Mr Mantashe, please address the question. Has this (Nkandla scandal) dented the image of the ANC or not? Yes or no?” said Maggs.
Before Mantashe could answer, a section of the crowd, especially Agang supporters, chanted: “Yes, yes, yes!”
Amid the cacophony, Mantashe said: “I think you don’t have to be rude to make your point. The report about Zuma, yes the ANC has to deal with that… In as far as what is happening in respect to the report, people do understand…”
Maggs then told Mantashe that he had failed to answer the question and changed the subject. Another member of the audience asked if the perception that the security cluster of ministers comprised mainly people from Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal was an ANC concern.
Mantashe seemed not to have any problem in dismissing this, saying the composition of the cabinet comprised ministers and deputies proportional to the number of people from the various ethnic groups.
“In the security clusters, we have Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor, who is not from KwaZulu-Natal. We also have Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who is also not from KZN. There was this question of the Zulufication of the cabinet, which is not true,” said Mantashe, to giggles from the floor.
“I am very concerned about the Public Protector’s report and (the) security cluster’s. We have a public protector (who is) independent and when we talk about Nkandla we have to add greater weight to her report,” Ramphele said.
Equally concerned was James.
“It is scandalous that President Jacob Zuma and the ANC can’t take responsibility for Nkandla, as seen from Mantashe, who can’t answer yes or no.”
James and Ramphele also had to field tough questions regarding their policies around inequality, Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and affirmative action in relation to race criteria.
They both identified education and skilled training, plus access to land, as the cornerstone for empowering people.
“One of the points that contribute to inequality is (unequal) education. We will be making sure that opportunities are accessible to all… All people should be given opportunities to excel… We need a BEE that supports jobs and invest in workers,” James said.
Ramphele added: “We in Agang believe that addressing the inequality has to be done from empowering every citizen with education. We have to empower people with land. We need an effective government that is not corrupt and not affirmative action that is based on race identification. High-quality education is important.”
Mantashe was quick to remind them that “you can’t address inequality without addressing poverty and unemployment”. He was also asked a question on the amendment to the Employment Equity Bill.
“We have a long way to go. Blacks have a long way to go. Coloureds have a long way to go. Whites monopolise 50 percent of economy. We have to accelerate affirmative action,” Mantashe said.
He also denied that the government intended increasing the number of ministers by adding a new ministry to support Small, Medium and Micro-sized Enterprises. He said the state was merely trying to reconfigure itself to enhance performance, as it had done by splitting education into the ministries of Basic Education and Higher Education.
Ramphele said: “The ANC has created the (existing) culture of corruption and tenderpreneurs. We talk about creating new enterprises to be run by people with skills. The FETs are creating people with papers.”
* This is the first in a series of five Wits election debates.