The Public Protector’s report on dodgy leases for police headquarters in Pretoria already has many players jumpy, but when one opposition MP by accident misread a sentence about this in Parliament, it was like putting gunpowder on the flames. CARIEN DU PLESSIS reports on the fireworks.
To err is human but when a politician does so, the entertainment provided by the fall-out is divine. Chairman of Parliament’s watchdog committee on public spending, Scopa, Themba Godi, also leader of the one-man African People’s Convention, issued a sheepish apology on Thursday, saying he thought the Public Protector’s rather scathing report would be referred to his committee (it would have been a first). Actually he had misread a sentence in the Announcements, Tablings and Committee Reports (known in parly jargon as the ATC, the daily parliamentary “newsletter’) of 27 July, saying what was actually referred to his committee was a reply from the minister of justice, Jeff Radebe, to his committee’s report on justice’s finances.
Godi got all excited for nothing, going out and getting advice from Parliament’s legal eagles on the matter.
Before he realised his mistake and issued an apology on Thursday, however, the ANC and the DA had ripped at each others’ throats.
In the latest round, the ANC’s caucus on Thursday rallied to President Jacob Zuma’s defence after an attack by the DA earlier this week, claiming among others the ANC was abusing parliamentary mechanisms by burying the Protector’s report in Scopa, and this could be unconstitutional (which turned out to be untrue).
The ANC said the president was “not passing the bug” (later corrected to “buck”) in his letter to national assembly Speaker Max Sisulu telling them to wait a bit longer for him to do something about the Public Protector’s report and suggesting Zuma would not hold public works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde and national police commissioner General Bheki Cele responsible for the lease bungle.
The ANC said about the DA: “It is deplorable that a party that regards itself as the leading opposition force in Parliament finds itself from time to time unable to restrain itself from statements that are unnecessarily speculative and factually groundless. It is a tactless propaganda that regrettably does little to enhance quality public discourse on critical matters affecting our nation.”
Zuma needed to update parliament about the work he does, the ANC statement said.
“The president should be allowed to continue with his work on this matter without distraction from sideshows and circuses.”
So much for the separation of powers.
It started like this, over the weekend, when the DA said Zuma wasn’t dealing with the report speedily enough and laid charges against people implicated in the report.
These included Cele, in his capacity as the police’s accounting officer, for failing to comply with laws like the Public Finance Management Act, Mahlangu-Nkabinde for failing to cooperate with the Public Protector, for going ahead with another lease in Durban in April despite the investigations, and for intimidation, businessman Roux Shabangu, for intimidating officials for agreeing to the lease agreement, and director-general of public works at the time, Siviwe Dongwana, for failing to tell national treasury and the auditor-general why his department deviated from a competitive tender process (as he is required to do).
Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj hit back saying it was a mere “publicity stunt” from the DA.
On Monday the ATC revealed the facts about Zuma’s letter to Sisulu, telling him he needed more time on the report (which he already got in February).
In true bullterrier fashion, the DA refused to let go, with its chairman DA MP Wilmot James saying in a statement on Monday “the president is wrong” and “his suggestion that by laying criminal charges in connection with the Public Protector’s reports regarding the SAPS leases we are acting frivolously, misrepresents and misunderstands the seriousness of our intention”.
He said even if Zuma had written a letter to Sisulu, the DA was still perfectly entitled to act on what it regards as a criminal offence.
Also, “it is our responsibility to hold the President to account, and we shall do so with vigour,” James promised.
On Wednesday the DA’s Athol Trollip entered the fray, complaining about the letter and the Scopa thing.
The DA’s spokeswoman on justice Debbie Shafer, found yet another angle on Thursday, saying there were more problems with the letter Zuma wrote to Sisulu.
The remedies Zuma suggested (fixing the public works supply chain management) in his letter was not a fix to the problem Madonsela had identified.
Zuma and Cele had been quiet on the matter, while Mahlangu-Nkabinde in a radio interview this week repeated Zuma’s suggested remedies for her department.
With all these sparks flying, this matter may still cause a big bit of damage before it is concluded. DM
Photo: Public Protector Thuli Madonsela (Daily Maverick)