Communications Minister Faith Muthambi File photo: Siyabulela Duda

When a new minister comes in and makes such a bold move it is because Zuma has approved it, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana.

Johannesburg - If you didn’t know who the new minister of communications was, you probably do now. It takes a while to get to grips with the new names and attach faces to each portfolio, especially when it’s so sizeable – a whopping 35 of them.

Faith Muthambi decided to put an abrupt end to all the guesswork. Debutants often have a slow start as they first have to familiarise themselves with their portfolios and all the role-players.

Hardly two months into the job, Muthambi has done something none of her predecessors would do. She has made Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s appointment as chief operations officer (COO) permanent.

Previous ministers wouldn’t have done that because they would have known it would be an outrage.

Motseoneng acting in that position was itself already a source of bewilderment. The man only has Grade 11.

Muthambi’s predecessors, and rightly so, couldn’t countenance the thought of appointing someone who couldn’t pass matric to run a corporation worth billions of rand.

And, making that appointment was supposedly more difficult this time around.

Thuli Madonsela, the public protector, upon being asked to investigate the appropriateness of Motseoneng’s acting as COO, found that he was unfit for the post. That finding gave legal force to what was already common knowledge.

Just knowing that Motsoeneng did not have proper papers for the job was sufficient to rule out even the mere thought of making his appointment permanent.

And Madonsela’s subsequent ruling should have made it impossible.

In other words, Muthambi has not only defied common sense but also defied the Office of the Public Protector.

So, why did she do it? It does seem quite puzzling, doesn’t it?

But it makes perfect sense: Motsoeneng is superbly suited for his mandate at the public broadcaster.

He’s not been employed to improve the technical competence of the institution but to make it a mouthpiece of the ruling party.

And, he has already distinguished himself in that role.

That is why no one was in a hurry to make a permanent appointment.

The man acted in that post nearly three years. They all knew he was woefully inadequate.

But, President Jacob Zuma found Motsoeneng useful in his rivalry with Kgalema Motlanthe. This was especially so in the period leading up to the ANC’s 2012 Mangaung conference, when he needed to receive favourable coverage.

The ANC benefited from similar favours during this year’s election campaign.

So, Motsoeneng has performed superbly in his role as a party apparatchik. That’s what Muthambi based her decision on, not technical competence. That was never part of Motsoeneng’s key performance indicators.

And, what probably made her take even more of a liking to Motsoeneng was that the party still needs a mouthpiece.

Some in the party have even convinced themselves that the need is greater now than it has ever been.

The party, they argue, faces a counter-revolutionary force, led by the private media.

They need the public broadcaster to thwart the counter-revolution. Muthambi believes that Motsoeneng, based on an illustrious record, is the man to lead that offensive.

What of the public protector’s conclusion that Motsoeneng be removed from that position? And, why should Muthambi defer to Madonsela?

Muthambi has adopted the same stance towards the public protector as her party, and probably thinks that’s what is expected of her.

The party has recently been quite belligerent towards the institution; one of its youth leaders even made disparaging personal remarks about Madonsela.

That young man, Mzwandile Masina, is now a deputy minister in Zuma’s cabinet.

There’s nothing that the government or the ruling party has done in the last year or so to show that they have any respect for the Office of the Public Protector.

So, why would Muthambi, a disciplined cadre of the movement that she claims to be, think any differently from her party?

Beside her assuming a similar posture to the party, let’s also consider Muthambi’s rationale for disregarding Madonsela’s findings.

She claimed that a law firm investigated the matter of Motsoeneng’s fraudulent qualifications and cleared him.

In other words, Muthambi is giving credence to a paid lawyer’s opinion over findings by a constitutional body with legal powers.

This is exactly the same line Luthuli House adopted on Madonsela’s report on the Nkandla imbroglio. It claimed that the findings of the so-called inter-ministerial committee had similar force to, if not more than, Madonsela’s recommendations.

And Zuma has still not responded to the recommendations of Madonsela’s report, which he had promised to do by July 16.

Muthambi’s conduct, therefore, is not unusual.

And, this leads me to a point about what makes and strengthens institutions.

An institution is an organisation founded on rules, which are observed.

Observance of rules shouldn’t just be occasional, but also consistent. This becomes routine, making conduct within, or towards the institution, instinctive.

One no longer questions what is expected of one or refers to the rules, but simply acts as expected. Conformity is no longer induced by rules, but is the norm.

That is how organisations evolve into institutions. And this ensures that they endure.

Attacks against the Office of the Public Protector are disrupting the momentum that is required to transform the organisation into an enduring institution.

This office can become resilient only if we defer to it, and do so consistently.

The regularity of our conformity then becomes ingrained in officialdom and public consciousness as the norm.

Any deviation would then become an aberration that attracts public outrage, which then acts as a deterrent.

It is encouraging that Luthuli House disapproves of Muthambi’s defiance of the public protector. It apparently insists that she should attend to Madonsela’s recommendations.

This is quite a change of heart. Not long ago the ANC leadership seemed prepared to lynch her. The change is welcome nonetheless.

But, it must be consistent to prevent officials thinking that defying institutions is a revolutionary act.

This also means that Luthuli House has eventually decided to insist on merit.

The mediocrity that follows incompetent appointments has made institutions dysfunctional.

This has cost the ruling party both electorally and as a moral leader in society. The party is clearly seeking to make amends.

How the Motsoeneng saga is resolved will give us some indication about the sincerity of the party in its new ways.

It is quite telling, though, that Muthambi didn’t consult Luthuli House. Such a consultation is customary, which explains their fury.

And, no junior politician can just walk into the cabinet and take such a drastic decision. Zuma probably gave her the nod.

He likes Motsoeneng, and still wants favourable coverage on TV. You would have seen the recent newspaper supplements that have heaped all sorts of praise on the president for what he has supposedly accomplished.

The man is in the twilight of his career and is concerned about his legacy.

Conversely, Luthuli House is looking at life beyond Zuma. Motsoeneng’s appointment is yet another scandal that can erode its popularity. It needs to rid itself of scandals in order to reverse the pattern of a party in decline.

Because he will not contest another presidential election, Zuma is less interested in the party’s popularity.

The organisation and its president have arrived at a parting of interests.

How the Motsoeneng saga is resolved will tell us whether there’s any shift in the balance of power.

* Mcebisi Ndletyana is head of the political economy faculty at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent