The public protector’s report on President Zuma’s homestead conveys serious lessons about governance and democracy, writes Susan Booysen.
In just three and a half hours Public Protector Thuli Madonsela conveyed a verdict on the state of governance and democracy in South Africa that spoke volumes about the darker side of the good story that the ANC’s 20 years in government has delivered.
It was an indictment that conveyed lessons about governance and democracy to the citizens of South Africa, ANC as the government and the ANC as a party.
Working on the “case study” of Zuma’s Nkandla, Madonsela’s report helped South Africans understand why the government misses targets and disappoints people.
It was a can of worms; an ugly picture of lawless government; a depiction of a government hijacked by “chiefs” and those with the mission to please the bosses.
The pursuit of narrow elite privilege is par for the course.
In the immediate aftermath the ANC and ANC-as-government needed all the water in the Nkandla fire pool to douse the flames.
Its “concern” about the politically sensitive, pre-election release raged on.
It had reason to worry about the Nkandla effect – about wavering ANC supporters resolute about not voting for this ANC and its government.
Cabinet members and the Presidency flung rescue buoys into the troubled waters, “reassuring” South Africa: the president has tasked the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to bring those who may have broken rules to book, and the government’s in-house inter-ministerial task team has reached similar conclusions.
The Presidency warned that the public protector was not a court of law. But “Secure in Comfort” is now etched on to South Africans’ political consciousness.
It further relieved citizens and ANC devotees alike of their innocence in believing that the main concern of the political class is the public interest. If anyone still wondered, this ANC is neither the liberation ANC nor the Mandela ANC.
As Madonsela outlined the picture of constitutional and legal principles flouted, regulatory and financial management frameworks bypassed by a phalanx of officials, directors-general and cabinet members, she became confirmed as the champion of the people.
South Africans of divergent political hues value transparency, accountability and truthfulness to their constitution.
They assume that constitutional prescripts, rules confirmed by the executive and laws adopted by Parliament determine how the government is run.
The report sketched systematic, technical and legally grounded evidence of a contrary story.
It emanated from the heart of political power but replicates across the spheres and sectors of the government. It resonates with citizens’ experiences and observations.
This is the “new inequality” and lack of accountability that participants in my late 2013 Freedom House research project lamented.
In the view of these ordinary citizens there are the leaders and those close to them, a closed circle of party elites and associates, who are on exclusive gravy train trips… and there are the ordinary people, those expected to be satisfied with the state’s social security net, the social wage and unemployment.
The case of Nkandla and its litany of disregarded laws, executive’s ethical codes, Batho Pele principles, procurement regulations and even constitutional principles revealed the underbelly of a party that purports to feel secure in its “knowledge” that people condone the leadership feasts and “licence to loot”.
Both the research and the early public response to Nkandla show that such acceptance is limited to those who themselves hope to enter the circle of looters. The Madonsela message on government procurement practice was one of the worst comedowns that the ANC as government has suffered in its 20 years in power.
The good story regressed into a morass of findings on inappropriate and unethical behaviour at top level. The political and civil service culture of keeping the big shots pampered and their nests feathered cracked.
The week had started on a high note for the ANC. It accepted that the release could no longer be delayed. However, there was high confidence that it could be countered, fingered as “political”. The office of the public protector would be respected, but there was enough ammunition for counter-attacks to cast aspersion on Madonsela as an irrational person, affected by mala fide.
The ANC’s directive to its members was to ignore the report. Secretary-general Gwede Mantashe reportedly advised members to treat it as political, just another version of events. An SACP leader suggested that Madonsela reckoned she was above the law.
The ANC Youth League imagined a kangaroo court of sorts. Cabinet members Tina Joemat-Pettersson and Lindiwe Sisulu respectively served court papers on Madonsela and doubted out loud whether Nkandla had been “investigated properly”.
The ANC’s total but subtle counter-onslaught on the public protector was lined up. This was while literally all of South Africa was sitting in amusement, waiting to see how the ANC would try to handle this one. Did the ANC forget that its credibility in handling corruption was already short? Phrases like “we have measures in place”, “we have committed ourselves to fight corruption” and “we are investigating and will act” had virtually become meaningless.
Perhaps the ANC and ANC government will be studying the Madonsela notebooks with a view to learning from mistakes… but is the order perhaps too tall?
The government and the Presidency were telling the nation how much they value the Chapter Nine institutions’ role in strengthening democracy.
We heard that besides the SIU and the task team that the president had appointed (both hard at work on exactly these issues, of course), the ministers of public works and defence had undertaken full accountability for the project and unearthed maladministration… Applause, please, anyone?
Contrasting with the bravado of the official line, President Jacob Zuma emerges from the report as conspicuously unpresidential, unless the benchmark is taken as former Zairian-DRC president Mobutu Sese-Seko and his palatial Mbandaka retreat. Thuli was kind on Jacob.
The cost of what he would have to repay, unless the ANC finds a back door, could be as little as R20 million. And few questions arose about the origins of the riches that built the residential heart of the homestead. The ministers whom Madonsela tries to hold to account might be equally fortunate: one of the report’s gems is that Zuma now has to reprimand those who had put their chief above the law.
Improper conduct and maladministration are two frequent phrases in the report, used in relation to the Zuma-pleasers. Madonsela blamed others for not apprising the president of the rules on opulence by virtue of raiding the state coffers.
The president should have known, but in the footsteps of the former security operative who leaves no trails the evidence that “he knew” was not forthcoming.
Perhaps more tragically, the report leaves South Africans with miniscule confidence in the doings in the heart of political power. Citizens have already had few illusions about the capacity of the president to assume control and give leadership. The report nevertheless exacerbates prior misgivings.
The ANC has virtually no chance of successfully dismissing or disregarding “Secure in Comfort”. We know from community research that the public protector boasts levels of popular credibility and adoration that the president of South Africa does not even approximate.
So what is to be done about the president? The ANC’s dilemma of Zuma on the campaign trail increased tenfold this week, by as much as the security upgrade budget for Nkandla increased.
Yet, the ANC will have Zuma, Nkandla and all, as its face of Election 2014.
The ANC will suffer in the election, although not to the extent of losing power or a solid majority. But there will be few new converts as the party trades on liberation and 20 years of delivery.
Come the month of May, the Man from Nkandla will be reinaugurated as South Africa’s president. But his baggage is bloated and he comes with cost to the ANC’s credibility.
This confronts the ANC with a catch-22. The ANC as party and government will have to be seen to be taking the report seriously. (The initial responses just did not match this task.)
The more it ignores even just aspects of it the more the ANC will shoot itself in the foot. It will need to show humility and cut its losses, knowing that popular believability can be salvaged if it acknowledges and visibly acts on the specific and general lessons.
The ANC will have to be seen to act on what the rest of South Africa, inclusive of its own loyal supporters, knows: Nkandla is the tip of the iceberg.
It is time for the page to be turned, and Madonsela’s Nkandla report helps show the way.
The question is whether the ANC will delay and wait for voters to become further alienated, or whether it will step away from its assumed divine right to rule and start reinventing the ANC in government.