THE acid test for President Jacob Zuma’s leadership was always going to be whether he would act decisively against corruption – not in a general way, by sanctioning statewide anti-fraud initiatives from the relative safety of the Union Buildings, but by moving against highly placed individuals important to him on both a personal and a political level.
Combating corruption is a government priority, and presidential pledges to deal with it have been a golden thread in all the president’s speeches since he took office in May 2009.
The auditor-general, Terence Nombembe, likes to stress when briefing parliamentary committees, the importance of leadership setting the tone when it comes to keeping a tight financial ship on state spending.
Now, as the months creep by since serious allegations were made against Zuma’s Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister, Sicelo Shiceka, for abuse of public funds, and as the official silence in the wake of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s findings on the dodgy police headquarters leases becomes thunderous, it’s time to ask again whether Zuma will grasp the nettle and walk his anti-corruption talk.
Shiceka is now in his sixth month of sick leave. Zuma said in April “there will be no hesitation (to take action) if these things that are being said are true”.
“It’s not as if people are running away… The public has a right to know the reply. However, we must allow the processes to unfold,” said Shiceka’s deputy, Yunus Carrim.
This came after the outcry that met allegations that Shiceka spent R335 000 on a first-class flight to Switzerland, allegedly claiming it was for a World Cup consultation, while visiting a girlfriend held in jail there on drug-related charges. The minister was also alleged to have spent hundreds of thousands of rand on luxury hotel stays, and more than R160 000 on flying his extended family around the country. Shiceka denied all bar one night’s stay at Cape town’s One & Only, and it was reported that the Presidency had asked him to account.
Now, however, Zuma seems to be waiting for the outcome of an investigation by the public protector’s office – requested, in an unprecedented move, by Parliament’s own joint committee on ethics and members’ interests some time after the scandal erupted. Zuma’s new spokesman, Mac Maharaj, indicated as much last week, when he said “the matter is currently being held in abeyance pending the public protector’s report and other matters that require the president’s attention”.
Co-operative Governance – a crucial delivery portfolio – is currently being carried by Carrim and overseen politically by Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, whose own portfolio must be burden enough in itself.
It’s interesting that Zuma appears to be leaving it up to the public protector to decide Shiceka’s fate, for he alone has the power to hire and fire members of his cabinet.
Zuma is similarly under fire over his silence in the wake of Madonsela’s reports on the SAPS leases. Political commentator Moeletsi Mbeki, addressing the Cape Town Press Club this week, cited Zuma’s failure to act in support of his assertion that the president lacks both the will and the ability to deal with the challenges facing the country.
Zuma, said Mbeki, was in power not by virtue of his own unique abilities, but because he happened to be the chap ferried to the top by the coalition of forces united around a determination to get rid of former president Thabo Mbeki.
“He dances to their tune,” said Mbeki – whom Zuma has previously dismissed as an “armchair critic”.
With Zuma now having reached the midway point of his five-year term as party leader and head of state, it’s inevitable that his actions – or failure to act – will be seen through the prism of his ambitions to serve a second term. As a result, he is under scrutiny to see whether the things he says and does are geared to serve the good of the country, or safeguard his chances for a second shot.
He appointed General Bheki Cele as the country’s police chief partly to ensure he had close allies in the state security cluster. Despite rumours – strongly denied by Cele – that his allegiance has changed, acting against him is made more complicated by their close personal, as well as political, history.
It’s important to note here that Madonsela, in finding the police headquarters’ leases to be invalid and unlawful, has found no one guilty of any crime: she may enjoy a status equivalent to that of a judge, but she is not one and can only make recommendations. What she did ask, however, was that Zuma “do the right thing” in considering action against Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, and enjoining Mthethwa to look at steps against the country’s police chief.
As Maharaj and cabinet spokesman Jimmy Manyi have argued, due process has to be followed and people cannot simply be dismissed “willy-nilly”, but that is to miss the point about the message Zuma should be sending if he is to be seen as serious about dealing with corruption.
Corruption around state tenders sucks billions out of the fiscus and sees vast quantities of taxpayers’ money squandered on inflated prices.
It’s a tangled web, the relationship between government contracts and the new elite, and obscures a plethora of patronage streams fuelling provincial and regional political fiefdoms. ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema is surely not the only one who can be accused of receiving kickbacks from business people wanting to secure tenders, as the cases pending against provincial ANC luminaries such as the Northern Cape’s John Block and KwaZulu-Natal’s Peggy Nkonyeni and Mike Mabuyakhulu indicate.
When it comes to anti-corruption measures, South Africa doesn’t do too shabbily. Global Integrity assesses the accountability mechanisms and transparency measures in place (or not) to stem corruption. Its latest report, released in May, ranked South Africa 11th out of 92 countries, with a score of more than 80 out of 100. Countries such as Somalia, Yemen and Syria came bottom of the log, with scores of less than 40.
Early on in his presidency, Zuma gave the assurance that when it came to corruption, heads would roll – even those in high places.
Perhaps the question now is not so much when, as whether Zuma can walk his anti-corruption talk.
l Gaye Davis is the Group Deputy Political Editor of Independent Newspapers