Zuma in the corner, Part II: No good Cele solution

By Stephen Grootes 29 July 2011

President Jacob Zuma seems to be making the tactical error of fighting battles on two fronts. While most of the political focus this week has quite rightly been on the complete disaster around Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo, the other calamity is national police commissioner General Bheki Cele and the Public Protector’s Report that is still awaiting presidential action. And there’s good reason why we can expect a much longer wait before something happens on that front. The truth is, Zuma has no good options available. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It was more than two weeks ago that Public Protector Thuli Madonsela released her final report outlining what happened in the deals around the new police headquarters. The report detailed how Cele had made sure businessman Roux Shabangu won the contract for a new national police headquarters, and then the deal for a provincial headquarters in, where else, KwaZulu-Natal. It also recommended that Zuma “take action” against Cele and public works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde. And while the nature of such action wasn’t specified, it really meant he should fire them both.

The report is at pains to say that Mahlangu-Nkabinde is deeper in the dwang, because she simply wouldn’t  cooperate with the Public Protector. She just refused to take calls and put their emails in the trash folder. As things stand, Mahlangu-Nkabinde is probably the more vulnerable of the two. She doesn’t have a massive constituency of her own and is not nearly as close to Zuma as Cele is. But we’ll come to see why she’s protected for the moment in a bit.

Let’s look at Cele more closely. He and Zuma go back; way back. They were in the ANC underground together in the 80s (according to the KZN province website). As Zuma was in charge of some of those structures, Cele would have answered to him. And clearly he was a loyal lieutenant, because he’s risen through the ranks of government in KZN since then. So Zuma is now in a position in which he has to take action against a comrade in arms. Not a prospect he cherishes.

KZN is Zuma’s home base. It’s where his support originates. Any general knows the most important front is the one at home. In politics, if your base starts to desert you, you’re in real trouble. And make no mistake, Cele is popular there too. He could easily return to the province and start making anti-Zuma noises. Which would not help the ANC president’s re-election bid.

It’s aggravated by two major factors. Firstly, it has generally been assumed until now that Cele was acting of his own accord, that the contracts were his idea, that he was the person who knew Shabangu and decided to do business with him. That is, at best, an assumption. It is possible that someone introduced them to each other. This makes life difficult. Either Zuma knows how they met, or he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, then what else could shake loose if Cele is let go. An angry Cele could be a very dangerous proposition for the ANC. If Zuma does know how they met, then perhaps he has another reason not to act.

The second problem is also a biggie. The Constitution says the President appoints the head of the police. The police minister has nothing to do with it. So Zuma, again, would have to find a replacement. Someone close to him, who shares his shoot-first-ask-questions-later philosophy. And if he does have such a person in mind, it’s another political appointment, and the usual crew of opposition parties and NGO’s will cry foul. If he doesn’t have one in mind, he’ll have to pick someone from the ranks, a professional police officer. While that would be great for the country, it could backfire later, if someone high up in the ANC is investigated, say, for corruption.

Zuma has maintained silence on this since Madonsela published her report. But on Wednesday his spokesman Mac Maharaj said he had “written to two ministers” on the issue. Presumably they are Mahlangu-Nkabinde and police minister Nathi Mthethwa. He’s right to do that. He must get their sides of the story. But because Mthethwa is really out of the loop on the appointment of the police chief, he has no power here. He finds himself in exactly the same position as Charles Nqakula was during the later Mbeki years. Jackie Selebi was being charged with corruption, Mbeki was defending him to the hilt and Nqakula was left defenceless in the middle. It’s a Constitutional anomaly really that this keeps happening and points to a real problem with the structure.

So if Cele is ring fenced in some way, how then is Mahlangu-Nkabinde not? It’s simple. Zuma has to tread very carefully at the moment with his cabinet. Either he “takes action” against her, or he doesn’t. A public reprimand isn’t really allowed by the unspoken rules of the ANC. So he has to fire her, or not. If he doesn’t, this issue will bog him down for ages. If does, he has to appoint someone to take her place. And then the first question will be how could he fire her, and not cooperative governance minister Sicelo Shiceka. That wouldn’t be a question from the usual media suspects, but from the increasingly angry tall man in Cosatu House.

So Zuma now finds himself in the position of having to carry out a full reshuffle, less than a year after the last one. And reshuffles haven’t worked out so well for him because he would be accused of using his power as president to secure his base ahead of Mangaung.

This is a big headache for Zuma and it’s not an easy problem to solve. The fact that General (retd.) Siphiwe Nyanda was allowed to turn down a deployment as an ambassador after being sacked as communications minister gives Zuma less space to move than he would have had, say, two years ago. But let’s not forget, this is yet another of those problems of his own making. He’s known Cele for longer than most. He must have known something like this was possible. He also appointed Mahlangu-Nkabinde.

And of course, no one put a gun to his head and told him he had to run for President. Or that he has to stay on. DM


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.

Break seal in case of emergency

Fire Moyane NOW, Judge Nugent urges Ramaphosa, and begin recovery process with a new, competent leadership in place

By Pauli Van Wyk

Dave Grohl once tried to quit Nirvana after overhearing Kurt Cobain call him a "shitty drummer". Their manager convinced him to stay.