President Jacob Zuma announced the appointment of judges to vacancies in the Supreme Court of Appeal, Competition Appeal Court, the Electoral Court and to High Courts. Photo: Independent Newspapers

President Jacob Zuma flew back to South Africa on Saturday into the eye of a political storm at the height of the ANC’s election campaign.

He faced outrage over the fatal beating by police of Ficksburg protester Andries Tatane, and a clamour that he face up to his legal and political duty to fire or clarify the situation of a close ally, Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Sicelo Shiceka, against whom there have been serious allegations of wasteful and possibly fraudulent use of state resources.

Zuma’s spokesman, Zizi Kodwa, said the president was waiting for a response from Shiceka to the allegations.

“We stress that Minister Shiceka remains innocent of the allegations unless proven otherwise,” Kodwa said.

The public protector has been asked to probe Shiceka’s spending of R335 000 on a trip to Switzerland, R640 000 in one year to stay at the One&Only Hotel, and R160 000 in eight months flying his extended family round the country.

Shiceka allegedly used the ruse of a World Cup-related trip to visit, at state expense, a girlfriend detained in a Swiss prison in 2008, and is accused of spending nearly R1 million on private hotel stays and travel tickets for himself, staff and family in contravention of the Ministerial Handbook that guides executive spending.

The Sunday Times has reported that there is deep unhappiness in Shiceka’s home village of Ingquza Hill in the Eastern Cape, where water has been laid on for the building of a house for the minister and a R32m tarred road is being routed past this house, which would be among the first in the area to be electrified. Villagers have protested about the lack of services such as electricity, sewerage and water.

UCT constitutional law expert Professor Pierre de Vos said the Ministerial Handbook made it clear that Zuma had to take political or legal action.

He would need to establish whether his predecessor, Kgalema Motlanthe, authorised Shiceka’s Switzerland trip while knowing the reason for the visit, or whether Shiceka had lied to him. Shiceka joined the cabinet

under Motlanthe’s presidency. If the facts were in dispute, Zuma needed to investigate. He could call in help only if the Presidency lacked the necessary capacity, De Vos said.

The handbook - classified secret - requires that the president approve foreign trips by members of his executive two weeks in advance.

Well-placed sources said there was no impending investigation, nor were any steps being contemplated against Shiceka.

Zuma flew back from China, where he represented South Africa at the first annual meeting of the Brics economic and political bloc since the country became a member.

Kodwa said Zuma took the allegations seriously and was attending to the matter.

Pressure on Zuma increased significantly last week when Parliament’s joint standing committee on ethics and members’ interests referred media reports about Shiceka’s alleged misuse of state funds to the Public Protector - the first such step involving allegations against a minister since 1994. The ID and Idasa filed separate requests for a probe with Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.

While the ANC has been silent, Cosatu has called for Shiceka to be fired if the allegations are proved true.

The Cape Times attempts to get comment from Shiceka’s ministry and department to the Presidency, the Department of Public Service and Administration and chief government spokesman Jimmy Manyi were unsuccessful.

It is understood that Shiceka’s illness, for which he was booked off in early February, is now so severe that staff in his office have been barred from contacting him, leaving them unable to do damage control.

The matter has apparently been referred to the Presidency.

De Vos said Zuma had passed off as a World Cup consultation his visit to Switzerland, during which he stayed in luxury accommodation, flew first-class and hired a chauffeur-driven limo at a cost of nearly R350 000 to the taxpayer.

“Overseas trips are only allowed, according to the Ministerial Handbook, for official trips when there is real value to be added to the minister’s portfolio,” said De Vos.

Shiceka’s reported stays in Cape Town’s One&Only Hotel and plane trips for his partners and family members also amounted to a transgression.

The handbook said when a minister had an official residence in a city, as Shiceka did in Cape Town, there was no reason for a hotel stay unless the house was temporarily uninhabitable.

“The president is ultimately responsible for ensuring his ministers act appropriately … The buck stops with him. If the facts are clear, he must act.”

De Vos said the handbook prescribed two types of action, one political and the other legal, such as asking the public protector to investigate.

“Ultimately it is the responsibility of the president to take action, unless it involves a criminal offence, in which case the police and prosecuting authorities must get involved.”

Madonsela’s spokeswoman, Kgalalelo Masibi, confirmed an investigation plan for the complaints filed against Shiceka would be ready today.

An overhaul of the executive members’ code of ethics - sparked by Madonsela’s findings after Zuma’s failed to declare his interests within the prescribed time - is nearly a year overdue.

Over two weeks, Radebe’s spokesman, Tlali Tlali, has not answered Cape Times questions about why the ministry’s April deadline has not been met for tabling amendments to the act governing the code. - Cape Times