Reporter’s notebook: Alone with politicians

By Stephen Grootes 23 November 2010

Those stolen moments when, as a political hack you are alone with a politician, are priceless. Sometimes you get something, sometimes you don’t, but when they come, you can learn a lot more from one tiny incident than from a lifetime of sitting in the front row at press conferences. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It’s the moment when the politician’s guard is down, and social etiquette forces them to say hello, to chat. Most politicians (and most radio journalists) suffer from that hatred of silence between two people who don’t know each other well. It sure makes for an interesting conversation.

And Ismail Vadi is an interesting man in an interesting space at the moment. He’s the new Gauteng transport and roads MEC. He used to be where all the action really is, in Parliament, as chairman of the national assembly’s communications committee. You know, the guy who would summon the SABC board to come and explain itself. Then he was demoted/redeployed to his new job.

At Monday’s briefing, he was doing his best to put his game face on for it. But he would be less than human if he wasn’t a little grumpy. That doesn’t mean he’s giving anything away. Politics can be cruel sometimes, and you have to ask if it’s really necessary for someone who’s been in a new job for just three weeks to come and give a “quarterly report back” as MEC. But the Gauteng provincial gods decreed it, and it was so.

So there we were, he and I, in the posh modern boardroom in the office of the Gauteng Premier (in name), as his officials walked in. First there was the conversation about how long it would all last, and the actual procedure. Quite frankly, for someone in public life, Vadi can be a little nervous. After the press conference he leaned over to an official and asked, “Was that all right?”. Beforehand, it was final look after final look.

In fact, he was more comfortable when thinking on his feet. Gauteng roads being Gauteng roads, he faced the obvious question about potholes. Grinning, he pointed out that all the SMSes he received after his appointment mentioned that word, “pothole”. And yes, “it’s a priority”, he even has his top people working on a short-term plan to get us through the rainy summer months. Once we’re through that, we’ll look at a longer-term plan. Well, good luck reversing 10 years of no maintenance, but, if we can help, give us a call!

All in all, there seems to be something a little sad about Vadi these days, perhaps a sense of defeat. Was he getting too close to the bone at his old job, did he make too many enemies, or is he supposed to be close to someone else in Gauteng? We’ll probably never really know, but to have ambition, as all politicians must have, and be relegated to the provinces must really suck.

Gauteng finance MEC Mandla Nkomfe on the other hand is a completely different kettle of fish. He’s been around the province for ages, and being in charge of its finances, is probably the third-most powerful person in the province, after Paul Mashatile and Nomvula Mokonyane. He decided to focus on the fight against corruption.

Did you know that in his ministry, a grand total of one person (that’s 1, one, uno, een) was arrested and dismissed for naughtiness. And one whole service provider was blacklisted for tender irregularities. And one “human resource team leader” was sacked for appointing ghost teachers whose salaries were paid to his gang.

In the health and social development ministry one official was criminally charged for making fraudulent payments.

Proof if ever went the line, that “Gauteng is tough on corruption”. Tough. Like a soufflé, like my grand aunt’s china tea set; tough, like the Springboks against the Scots.

So tough in fact, that that big contract that led to no one being able to book a driver’s licence test in Africa’s “economic powerhouse” for three years will not be investigated. You may remember this was the effort to centralise all booking systems to stop corruption. Well, it stopped corruption all right. There were days when it seemed to stop the entire province from functioning as well. Nkomfe says he’s personally looked at “what led up to that contract being signed, and satisfied myself about it”.

There was a very telling moment though. Because the licence chaos went on for about three years, the whole thing was finally cancelled and everyone went back to the original system in October this year. Nkomfe’s reason: “It was the new provincial government after the elections that came in and looked at contracts that were not aligned” with our priorities. To us that sounds a lot like “Paul Mashatile was not the boss anymore and we could cancel the damned thing.” Maybe we’re too cynical.

Sometimes it’s hard to know how provinces are really run. Who makes the decisions and the interplay between the characters. Sometimes, it’s a little easier. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: Reuters.


While we have your attention...

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.

Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.

Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.


SARS & Gartner – global advisory giant’s mysterious deal with Moyane’s friend follows a pattern of tender corruption

By Pauli Van Wyk

"We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there." ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson