The Public Protector’s report on Minister Sicelo Shiceka’s creative use of public funds revealed his R13,000 mosquito-fighting habit and a misguided lifeline from Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, by now a regular sideshow in Madonsela's reports. CARIEN DU PLESSIS found the reading riveting – like going down a rabbit hole.
One sweaty night in February in Cape Town, the ninth to be exact, the mosquitoes got to Cooperative Governance Minister Sicelo Shiceka. Instead of burning some coils to feter the flying pests, he demanded that his department’s travel agency, Travel With Flair, book him into a hotel. True to its name, the agency booked him the most expensive in the Mother City, the One & Only. The pest-control venture cost the taxpayers R13,781, but then again, there is no price for avoiding the insanity that buzzing mosquitoes can cause.
This couldn’t have brought on the illness for which he had been on sick leave for eight months now though, as he already looked dangerously thin and incapacitated during the ANC’s national general council a year ago in Durban. Rumours of what this illness could be have not been confirmed.
Most of the allegations and findings against Shiceka in Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report are well known. They were written about on after the report was leaked to Business Day and The New Age at the end of September. Madonsela said this happened after she had distributed copies for comment to the parties involved, and condemned the leaking. On Friday morning she submitted the report to Parliament’s joint committee on ethics and members’ interests.
In short, the findings are that Shiceka was guilty of maladministration and transgressing the rules in the already generously-permissive Ministerial Handbook, and should be sacked (well, depending on how you interpret the “serious action” recommended to President Jacob Zuma).
The front page of the report is enticing, like the cover of a bad retro comic. The report is aptly entitled: “In the Extreme”, and bears a beautiful picture of the One & Only Hotel, romantically lit up with a backdrop of Table Mountain, while the early evening and its promise of glamour descends over the well-situated Waterfront building.
It was at this R13,000-a-night hotel that Shiceka blew almost R300,000 of state money, while he had a residence in Cape Town (and an alternative dwelling, supposedly, but more about Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde’s dodgy letter later).
Framing the bottom of the hotel are pictures of an aeroplane – to depict the wasteful travel costs incurred by Shiceka; the luxurious Lesotho Sun, where he stayed on a private visit under a false name during his sick leave, yet expected the state to foot the bill – which it didn’t; a snow-covered mountain peak depicting Shiceka’s R546,864 visit to Switzerland, which he said was for 2010 World Cup research, but which was in fact to visit a girlfriend in prison – depicted in the next picture as two hands holding prison bars from the inside.
Once you pick up this report, you can’t put it down, mostly because it’s rather difficult to believe that anybody in their right mind could get up to the things Shiceka did – and then go on to mislead the Public Protector about it by giving contradictory responses. And then you wonder how the man could ever be trusted to be a minister, or any job paid for by our money, again – something which was reflected in the reaction that came in from opposition parties and Cosatu – all of them in unison called for Zuma to fire him.
Heck, even the ANC caucus welcomed the report and said Zuma should be given space to apply his mind. If Zuma still doesn’t get the hint that Shiceka should be sacked, one could only suspect that the sickly minister has more dirt on Zuma than anyone could imagine. Besides, the staff who gave evidence against Shiceka are said to fear for their jobs should Shiceka return – or so said Madonsela.
Then there was the mysterious letter by Mahlangu-Nkabinde, which looks a bit like an attempt to bail Shiceka out by providing proof that his official Cape Town residence was uninhabitable – and therefore justifying the five-star hotel stays:
Dated 31 August 2011, roundabout the time when Madonsela started demanding answers from Shiceka, Mahlangu-Nkabinde’s letter states that Shiceka, who moved into his official house in November 2009, needed to vacate his house on or before 31 March 2011 (a Muizenberg flat was made available to him instead) because it was due for an upgrade. This looks like a letter getting lost in the post big time, or else our cabinet ministers dabbled in time travel, because the notice for the move is for five months before the letter was written. “In any event, this bears no relevance to Mr Shiceka’s questionable accommodation at Cape Town hotels at state expense after he took occupation of his official residence,” Madonsela remarked.
Then there are also instances where Shiceka “misled” the Public Protector (in common language this is called “lying”), first when he denied going to Switzerland to visit his girlfriend in prison when Madonsela’s evidence indicated that this was the sole reason for his trip; second when he denied booking into the Lesotho Sun when the evidence showed he did so under a false name; and third when he told Madonsela she could not interview him as he was on sick leave, while indicating to all journalists who cared to listen (including Daily Maverick) that he was fit as a fiddle and awaiting instructions from Zuma to return.
Madonsela’s investigation arose from complaints made by the co-chairmen of Parliament’s ethics committee, Ben Turok (who has proven himself to be very vigilant also in allegations involving other MPs, like ANC MP Yolanda Botha, who was found to have lied about kickbacks) and Lemias Mashile, as well as ID MP Haniff Hoosen and Idasa’s Judith February. The complaints were made on the basis of a Sunday Times report about Shiceka’s splurge.
Some of the complaints, like the one that Shiceka had spent public money building himself a huge home in the rural Eastern Cape, could not be proved, Madonsela said. Of course, Shiceka on Friday rejected Madonsela’s findings (instead of resigning out of shame), and hinted that her investigation was procedurally unfair. This probably lays the basis for a court challenge, which could help to extend his well-paid sick leave for a few more months, unless Zuma decides that it’s time for him to go.
Rumours of a cabinet reshuffle had been doing the rounds since the allegations against Shiceka were first published in April. At the end of October it will be a year since Zuma first shook up his executive. Maybe it’s time for another reshuffle. DM
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine