When Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza criticised the government, it unleashed a hailstorm of insults from the dizzying heights of the ruling party and the state. Auditor-general Terence Nombembe has now attacked the same leaders, yet government is politely chewing on his criticism. ALEX ELISEEV asks: What gives?
Do you remember how many weeks it took for the “strange breed of leaders” storm to blow over?
The moment Reuel Khoza’s controversial chairman’s report became public the insults began to crack down on him like lightning bolts.
The first came from ANC heavyweight Gwede Mantashe, followed by Nathi Mthethwa, Blade Nzimande and, eventually, government spokesman Jimmy Manyi.
All of them spared no blows, dragging into the public arena Khoza’s past, accusing him of pandering to the needs of his rich bosses, questioning his commitment to transformation and stopping just short of accusing him of treason.
No metaphors or adjectives were spared, from “Khoza’s twisted logic” to reminders that he would never be in the position he finds himself in were it not for the valiant efforts of those he dared to criticize.
Business organisations and political parties were sucked into the debate. It was a public spat that went on way too long and should have been resolved – as it eventually was – behind closed doors.
Those who supported Khoza’s views claimed he had struck a nerve and the reaction was amplified by the simple fact that, well, “the truth hurts”.
Ultimately, Khoza’s warning was about the country’s rule of law and whether those who have a firm grip on power were undermining it.
Aside from the strong words, the essence of Terence Nombembe’s warning – delivered late last week – is pretty much the same. The auditor-general referred to the situation in South Africa as “dire”, saying he was busy sounding an “early warning signal” to avoid long-term damage.
Nombembe explained the root of the problem lies in three spheres: a lack of skills and competence at local government level; impunity for those who fail to deliver, which demoralises those who try; and the failure of those in charge to account for their mistakes.
Nombembe said he kept going “beyond the call of duty” to have meetings with the government as often as possible, but his warnings were falling on deaf ears and the pace of implementing controls remained far too slow.
Later, in a radio interview, he described it as the “tearing of the fibre” of internal controls. Fraud, maladministration, service delivery… all these risks are happening because the fundamentals of internal controls are not intact,” he said.
If you consider these issues they boil down to a government that fails to – or is too arrogant to listen to – complaints, fails to take ownership, and blames procedures for allowing the dead wood to remain.
Business Day editor Peter Bruce put it another way: “He (Nombembe) is beginning to talk about the beginnings of a failed state. He’s beginning to say there is no capacity to respond to things that are wrong.”
Speaking on the radio show, Bruce said the auditor-general is being diplomatic, considering the link between his office and the government, and that the truth is actually much uglier.
Asked whether all of this leads up to the office of the country’s president, Bruce didn’t skip a beat, saying: “This is Jacob Zuma’s administration laid increasingly bare”. He asked whether the same people who attacked Khoza would now go for Nombembe, who has “seen the beast”.
Perhaps some of the sting was removed by the fact that Nombembe has sounded this alarm before, several times. But Bruce points out that this is his strongest one yet. And anyway, one would expect the government to feel at least a little ticked off that the person charged to monitor its performance describes its achievement as “dire”.
But not Jimmy Manyi. Not this time. Responding to the criticism, the spokesman said it’s pointless for two sides to sit in a boat and accuse each other of causing a leak. What is needed is for both parties to get down to repairing the hole before the vessel sinks.
Manyi added that government respects and hold in high regard the work of all Chapter 9 institutions.
“When the Chapter 9 institutions point out areas of improvements, you don’t have a government that runs into defence (mode), you have a government that says: ‘what is the action plan to correct these things?’”
Manyi went on to say that over the next few weeks more details would be shared about the government’s plans to address specific problems. He defended the leadership and its policies by pointing out how South Africa rode out the global recession.
“This country is well led. Nothing is falling apart. We have challenges here and there and we are dealing with them,” he said, dismissing suggestions of a failing state.
Manyi conceded that on an emotional level it’s clear why people want immediate action, but you couldn’t just go around firing people who were not performing. Why not?
“Let’s have patience with our democracy. We wanted this democracy, but sometimes we want to act like cowboys. Government can’t act like cowboys, it has to act procedurally, and it has to act like a democratic state. We can’t be emotional,” he answered.
From the side of analysts and economists, there was little reaction on Monday. Those approached by Business Day in the original article spoke about the brewing of a “perfect storm” – which would make fixing holes in boats significantly tougher – and advised everyone to heed the warnings.
So what does this all say about the government’s handling of the Khoza spat? Have we just been served a dollop of double standards? Why did we not have the boat analogy then, considering how important the business sector is to the country’s economic health? Why did we not have a dignified debate?
Surely a government can’t pick and choose which criticism it likes and which it sees as an insult? Is that how a mature government ought to behave?
With the clock ticking down to Mangaung and the toxic fumes permeating from the Richard Mdluli mess, the country’s leaders can expect a lot more questions about the rule of law and whether it’s under threat.
On Monday the Institute for Security Studies’ Gareth Newham said the Mdluli saga is the greatest threat to the country’s criminal justice system since former president Thabo Mbeki tried to interfere in the prosecution of police chief Jackie Selebi.
Newham described the infighting in the police and the National Prosecuting Authority as “astonishing”, saying it’s at the highest level it’s been since the dawn of democracy.
Have lessons been learned? In the future, can we expect debate that’s less Khoza and more Nombembe? Or is the latest reaction further proof of alliances and divisions and how they play out? While we ponder this, the water will keep gushing into our boat. DM