25 Mar 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
The public protector — her grandstanding notwithstanding — has proven to be far more robust in standing up to the executive than her predecessors, writes Tony Leon
THE publication and consequences of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report on Nkandla prove, yet again, that South Africa is an abnormal democracy. Let’s start with the adjective: in a normal democracy it is improbable that the leader of the governing party against whom the constitutional official charged with investigating misuse of public funds and office found that together with his family had "improperly benefited" from lavish upgrades to his private residence would be on course to win re-election as president. Or even still be a candidate for the nation’s highest office. So that’s pretty unusual in the democratic world where accountability is practised and the misuse of public office is punished at the polls.
Now on to the noun: the fact that the public protector can, even though the government placed some significant obstacles in her path, publish in a blaze of publicity such a damning report on the eve of an election points to the robustness of elements of our constitution. So too does the fact that the original arose from intrepid journalism.
But all things considered, you would rather be a journalist or even a citizen of South Africa than, say, Turkey. Its embattled and ethically hobbled, but once widely admired Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds the dubious double distinction of being the world’s top jailer of journalists and the man who last week threatened to "wipe out" Twitter, the microblogging site where details of the corruption engulfing his administration first appeared. No talk now of Turkey being the democratic bridge between moderate Islam and Europe, the East and the West, etc. It has become just another at-risk democracy.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) — in between laying criminal charges against President Jacob Zuma, doing the stuff oppositions do to embarrass governments and feeding the narrative that the public protector is "in the DA’s pocket" — has also changed its script to meet its electoral needs and expectations. No doubt the numbers tell it that in order to lure dissidents from the ruling party, it must soft-pedal its ideological and institutional opposition to the African National Congress (ANC) and personalise the contest around Zuma’s failures. As with its 2009 "Stop Zuma" campaign, the president and his missteps in office are seen as the gift that keeps on giving. So the opposition script now reads: "(Nelson) Mandela best, (Thabo) Mbeki good, Zuma bad".
This repositioning is no doubt inspired in part by Stanley Greenberg, whom it has hired for this election. He has the interesting distinction of having been in charge of the ANC’s polling in the 1994 election, when Mandela led the party, and the 1999 one, when Mbeki did. Thus, the DA’s current tactics mirror the shift in alignment of its imported pollster and some of its emerging leaders, who were staunchly ANC an election or two ago.
However, it is worth noting that the public protector — her grandstanding notwithstanding — has proven to be far more robust in standing up to the executive than her predecessors. And here Zuma can take a bow, as he appointed her, although he must now be bitterly regretting doing so. It is extraordinary to think back to the fact that on Mbeki’s watch the same office was occupied with predictably dire results by a senior ANC politician, Lawrence Mushwana.
In fact, it came to light just after Mbeki won an overwhelming victory in the 2004 election that the taxpayer had thoughtfully and unknowingly stumped up an initial R11m (later revealed to be R18m) contribution to the ANC campaign. This was done when state-owned oil company PetroSA, also then chaired by a senior ANC politician, paid in advance for oil concentrate (which it ultimately had to pay for again) to an ANC middleman, Sandi Majali, who promptly transferred the entire amount into the party’s coffers. As blatant as that.
Needless to say, despite the intrepid reporting of the Mail & Guardian at the time and the opposition reporting the matter to the public protector, no adverse findings were made, no funds were repaid and the public protector could not even extend himself to rule that there had been any gross impropriety.
And when the Mandela administration faced its first ministerial scandal relating to both the misuse of public funds and misleading Parliament, ironically at the hands of Zuma’s then other half, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, then public protector Selby Baqwa in his investigation into the Sarafina 2 scandal managed to place the blame on a mid-level official in the Department of Health and shield the minister from any consequence.
Ironically, the public protector’s finding back then is the exact posture the ANC has adopted today on Nkandla: shield the politician and throw the officials under the bus. But it has a provenance that can be traced right back to our democratic beginnings, at a time when the public protectors were, perhaps, made of less stern stuff than today.
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