A scheme of presidential protection

The interests of the ruling party’s leaders have been equated with the interests of the people too often, writes Susan Booysen.

Johannesburg - Recent high South African politics can be characterised as fine footwork meeting the bull in the china shop. A phalanx of events has converged to illuminate the ground rules for the political game.

President Jacob Zuma. Credit: GCIS

It revealed the intricacies of upholding a government image of constitutionality, respect for the rule of law and law-driven operations whilst protecting a president and some of his associates – up to a point.

Much very muddy water has passed under the bridge during Jacob Zuma’s presidency.

The ruling party now suffers credibility deficits. The interests of the party’s leaders have been equated with the interests of the people on too many occasions.

Good institutions were contaminated in the process. Opposition parties got much leeway to make hay, while cover-ups and avoidance of due process were on display in government, especially in the form of avoiding public protector directives.

The ANC hoped its election mandate could also be projected as the great pardon for things that went wrong in “the previous government”.

Instead, chickens have been coming home to roost. Now the ANC must go back to the drawing board to deal with its skeletons.

A quick roll-call shows the range of events converging around the issues of demonstrating good democratic governance yet still protecting the president:

This listing draws in a spectacular group of institutions that are central to government – the president, Parliament, the public broadcaster, the electoral commission, the Scorpions, a division of the high court and the Constitutional Court. The issues at stake go to the heart of these institutions’ work – they also have implications for the governing political elite.

We stand reminded of the findings of the Freedom House research report late last year. South African citizens, across the party political spectrum, were critical of the high end of politics.

Equality of the law does not exist in South Africa, and there is serious distance between the leaders and the people they purport to represent, the voices in this research argued.

The ANC in Parliament deserves credit for conceding an open agenda for the new Nkandla ad hoc committee. If only there were not a history of executive and parliamentary efforts to circumvent the scrutiny of the public protector’s report.

The reports by the Special Investigating Unit, the joint standing committee on intelligence and the Minister of Public Works all now stand alongside the public protector’s Nkandla report.

It was the predecessor ad hoc committee that in the dying days of the pre-election Parliament pulled the plug and disbanded the committee. Now-minister Faith Muthambi played a central role; she became the new Minister of Communications, also bowling on the side of the SABC chief operating officer.

In the Cape High Court the procedural critiques of the Motsoeneng appointment are being waved aside by a team arguing that the DA harbours anti-Motsoeneng issues, and that Motsoeneng disclosed his lack of matriculation credentials in a junior reporter appointment at the SABC decades ago.

Back to the Constitutional Court, which dismissed Tlakula’s bid to stay in her job as head of the IEC. Public Protector Thuli Madonsela found last August that Tlakula had contravened procurement regulations in obtaining the lease for the IEC’s new head office, and that she had an “unmanaged conflict of interest” in terms of an undisclosed business relationship.

Tlakula originally turned to Parliament, arguing that it was the body that appointed her and that the public protector does not have authority over her appointment.

Parliament protected her until the United Democratic Movement and other opposition parties took her to court. Now Parliament has to take the final steps.

Tlakula could now be free to pursue business interests, or even in due course be honoured with a diplomatic posting. Last week it was confirmed that Guptagate’s fall man, Brigadier Bruce Koloane, had earned himself a diplomatic posting in The Netherlands.

It is not clear yet how the 2014 rules of the ANC’s government game will play out for Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s role in Marikana. It might not affect his position in the ANC hierarchy.

But we have seen that Zuma holds out Ramaphosa’s appearance and cross-examination at the Farlam Commission as an example of how leaders are indeed held to account.

In an edifying interview with Independent Newspapers, Zuma declared: “We are an open society, we are a democracy, there’s no one who is above the law. The deputy president is being grilled in a legal, very open process.”

It must be great to have someone else to serve as an example.

Comparable ambiguity emerged in the ANC’s handling of the public protector’s reports. Three of the examples of unfolding rules of the game have public protector reports as the centrepiece – the Nkandla, Motsoeneng and Tlakula cases.

There is resistance against their recommendations, despite the ANC repeatedly putting its respect for the office of the public protector on record. ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa, for example, praised the virtues of the office of the public protector and received accolades for his words. Was it in fact insurance taken out for the dark days of again having to return to dissing Madonsela?

There were also further developments last week in the land of a political elite that dabbles in business freely (despite earning a full-time salary to be in politics).

Constitutional Court judges asked where the country’s corruption busters might be.

They were getting their minds around how the fact that the Hawks reside under the Ministry of Police (as opposed to the Scorpions, under the NDPP) hamstrings the independence of the unit.

Counsel for the state failed to answer intelligibly.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng pondered, referring to himself and his colleagues: “If judges in the highest court in the land struggle to understand how it operates, how are the police going to understand it?”

It is small steps ahead for Parliament and the judiciary to rule on most of the cases in this analysis.

The decisions, however, will leave giant imprints on the face of democracy.