Even in death, it was difficult to separate Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s distinguished career in politics from her ludicrous policies and statements on HIV and Aids during her time as health minister.
To be fair, as a trained medical doctor, she would not have come up on her own with the bizarre diet, which earned her the name “Dr Beetroot”, rather than to fight HIV with drugs. It was former president Thabo Mbeki who was the open Aids denialist and, as the person in his Cabinet responsible for government’s handling of the disease, she had to be the face and voice of that irrationality.
For the present, South Africa will probably never find out whose idea it was in the first place to appoint a candidate as flawed as Richard Mdluli as head of crime intelligence. Since he assumed the position, Mdluli has been suspended by the former police commissioner, Bheki Cele, and his acting successor Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi. He has been charged with murder and corruption and is under investigation for nepotism and defrauding the state secret service account.
In a farcical series of events, the status of Mdluli’s suspension has see-sawed for several months, and is still in dispute in the labour court. Investigations and prosecutions against Mdluli were forcibly shut down and there is a sense of invincibility about the man, despite a series of damning media exposés and outrage from civil society.
Neither President Jacob Zuma nor police minister Nathi Mthethwa will discuss the issue publicly and they have set up a gallery of mirrors and a smoke machine on full power to ensure nobody is able to decipher the political play behind the feared crime intelligence chief.
What we do know is that Mthethwa went out of his way to make sure he was appointed, to the point of violating proper procedure. And short of burying the smoking gun himself, Mthethwa is impetuously determined to protect Mdluli from prosecution and to keep him in the job.
So far the only exposed benefit he has derived from Mdluli’s reign is a security wall around his private residence, for which crime intelligence paid. And in the world where wastage and corruption are in millions and sometimes billions, a mere R200,000 wall hardly seems to be worth the barrels full of egg on Mthethwa’s face as a result of the PR nightmare that Mdluli has turned out to be.
Zumas’s link to Mdluli and his role in the saga is more cloaked. There is no footprint of a relationship between the two prior to Mdluli’s appointment. In spite of allegations that Mdluli helped Zuma escape conviction in his rape trial, there is no evidence whatsoever that the policeman had any access to Zuma or a role in the rape investigation.
Considering how sensitive and politically charged that rape investigation was, if an Average Joe – which is what Mdluli was at the time – stuck his nose in where he had no business, the alarm bells would have been clanging. So either Mdluli lied about his role in the rape trial to buy much-needed political goodwill (he is an apartheid era policeman with no liberation credentials) or he has some other affiliation with Zuma.
What seems to have bound the two consequent to Mdluli’s appointment is Zuma’s constant need for a good political conspiracy – especially one that provides political leverage to fight off presidential contenders.
When Zuma’s trusted spooks in the intelligence apparatus assured him there was no political plot against him and refused to authorise surveillance operations against ANC leaders, they became superfluous and therefore dispensable.
However, it seems Mdluli was willing to oblige. There are unconfirmed allegations that Mdluli delivered the discredited “Ground Coverage Report”, which claimed a range of ANC leaders met in Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal to plot against Zuma, to the presidential residence in Pretoria. The report was allegedly given to Zuma via one of his bodyguards.
This is why there is no paper trial from the crime intelligence headquarters to the presidency, as would be the case when documents are routed between government departments, and why both Zuma and Mdluli can confidently deny having had sight of the document.
If only to restore a semblance of integrity to his presidency, Zuma should have cut Mdluli loose long ago. He could have done so when Mdluli was charged for murder or when the Hawks discovered massive fraud from the secret service fund.
The moment again presented itself when Mdluli was caught in Mkhwanazi’s crosshairs – Mkhwanazi was Zuma’s appointment so the president could easily share the credit for the acting commissioner’s crusade to purge the police of crooked cops, starting with Mdluli.
Instead, Zuma has vested his confidence in Mthethwa to walk him out of the Mdluli crisis. In the face of a formidable fightback from Mkhwanazi, Mthethwa has tried to keep the dogs at bay, expand Mdluli’s powers and shift him from the line of fire.
He has sent a task team led by the state law advisor on a wild goose chase to investigate a conspiracy against Mdluli by his colleagues in the police. And Mthethwa’s office appears to be behind a puerile PR exercise to spin Mdluli as a misunderstood and salt-of-the-earth kind of guy through a series of soft media interviews last month.
With Mkhwanazi now resorting to the courts to get rid of Mdluli and civil society lobby group Freedom Under Law initiating an unprecedented case against government to interdict Mdluli from performing any duties, Mthethwa has dived for cover. Last week he sat squirming in Parliament as Zuma was grilled over his complicity and lack of action on the Mdluli matter.
This week, the stakes were raised by Mthethwa’s Cabinet colleague Tokyo Sexwale who openly slammed government’s handling of the Mdluli matter and the “atmosphere of fear” it generated.
“There is concern about the evidence of political interference and partiality (to benefit) Mdluli,” Sexwale said in an address to the Rhema Bible Church in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape over the weekend.
“Speak out when a corrupt policeman wants to be your commissioner. There’s Mkhwanazi. I don’t know him but this cop is standing up against the odds.
“There is something that we should lose…fear of those in authority. We put people in authority and we get terrified of them. You fear an MEC, a mayor, a minister. You fear premiers, you fear the president … we put people in power then we become afraid of them,” Sexwale said in a clear affront against Mthethwa and Zuma.
The spotlight is now on Mthethwa to see how he responds to Sexwale and Freedom Under Law’s court application. Mthethwa looks determined to stubbornly hold out in the hope that the outrage over Mdluli will pass and he will be able to sneak him in though the back door again.
He also appears to believe that he can somehow convince the country, perhaps through the task team investigation, that Mdluli is a victim of a conspiracy and is actually worthy of being the national police commissioner.
If Zuma still thinks Mdluli can help him retain the ANC presidency at Mangaung in December through underhand tactics, he is also hopelessly misguided as ANC structures are now on high alert for dirty tricks. ANC members do not like to be manipulated and as long as Mdluli remains in the picture, Zuma’s challengers will use the issue to de-campaign against him.
Like with Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang, Mdluli is an albatross around Zuma and Mthethwa’s necks. While the matter is too far gone to undo or explain away, there is still an opportunity for a volte-face. It will be hard to swallow but it’s the only way to moderate how history will record the Mdluli crisis in their political obituaries. DM
Photo: Then-newly appointed South African national police commissioner, Bheki Cele (R), is congratulated by South African President Jacob Zuma as Safety and Security Minister Nathi Mthethwa (C) looks on at the end of the news conference in Pretoria, July 29, 2009. (REUTERS)
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