Until that fateful ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting in September 2008 when the party took the dramatic decision to recall former president Thabo Mbeki from office, it never had a proper sit down with him to hold him to account for his actions. Yes, there was the time it had to confront his Aids denialism but the ANC did not really hold him to account: in 2002 the party prevailed on Mbeki to allow the turnaround in government policy on HIV/Aids treatment because it was simply untenable to continue the lunacy.
But as far as presenting him with all the accusations it eventually used to oust him – from abuse of power to manipulation of state agencies – well, the ANC just never asked him to account for these at any time during his presidency. Perhaps if it had, and not allowed him to become the supreme leader who held absolute power, he could have had a chance to correct his ways and not have to be unceremoniously booted out of office and cast into the political wilderness.
The problem was not just confined to Mbeki. The ANC does not have an accountability mechanism to hold its deployees answerable for their performance and actions in the state. So from the late Sicelo Shiceka, the former minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, to former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi, the ANC generally allows its deployees in the state to hang themselves by their own shoelaces rather than to call them in to ask why they are in trouble.
This not only applies at national level, but in the provinces and in local government. The ANC would rather let its own members repeatedly call for the axing of the Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale than call him in and ask why so much has gone wrong in the province under his watch. The Port Elizabeth metro has for years been dogged by political infighting, maladministration and instability. Rather than confronting these problems by holding the local leadership accountable, the ANC let the problems fester until it had no other choice but to fire the mayor and deputy mayor.
In the build-up to the ANC’s 53rd national conference in Mangaung last year, it looked as if the party was mindful of its weak accountability mechanism and wanted to fix the situation. At the ANC’s policy conference last June there was strong focus on cleaning up the party’s public image in particular, and dealing with the poor performance and inappropriate conduct of its deployees in government which brings the ANC into disrepute.
This eventually gave rise to strong resolutions at the December national conference, such as: “Cadre deployment should be underpinned by a rigorous system of monitoring and evaluation of the performance of cadres deployed and elected to leadership positions. This will avoid a situation wherein leadership assessment and evaluation take place only in the run-up to conferences.”
The ANC also resolved at Mangaung that: “More urgent steps should be taken to protect the image of the organisation and enhance its standing in society by ensuring, among others, that urgent action is taken to deal with public officials, leaders and members of the ANC who face damaging allegations of improper conduct. In addition, measures should be put in place to prevent abuse of power or office for private gain or factional interests.”
In declaring the “Decade of the Cadre”, the party resolved that: “The ANC must revitalise all aspects of its cadre policy: recruitment, cadre development, deployment and accountability and cadre preservation.”
It all sounds good on paper; in practice though, nothing has changed. The ANC has allowed Communications Minister Dina Pule to drown herself in a sea of controversy rather than sit her down and ask for an explanation. The ANC would rather allow its deployees to face multiple investigations and bring the party into disrepute than check whether they are suitable or failing at their jobs. The party has the option of assisting them with corrective measures or asking them to resign.
While Cabinet ministers and other senior deployees in government might serve at the pleasure of the president, their performance and conduct ultimately reflects on the image of the party. The ANC therefore cannot wash its hands of what its members do in government and still expect to maintain the confidence and trust of the people of South Africa.
With regard to the curious case of the Gupta jet landing at Waterkloof Air Force Base, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe’s strongly-worded statement against the private use of a military base was perhaps pivotal in getting the state to investigate the matter. However, while the ANC was clearly unimpressed with the Gupta family exercising extreme liberties to abuse a state facility, it will not take the next logical step and interrogate why they were able to do so.
The opportunity presented itself at the weekend NEC when the Guptagate scandal was discussed. However, President Jacob Zuma, according to Mantashe, did not explain to his party the nature of his relationship with the Guptas and why they felt comfortable enough to drop his name – as had been established by the state investigation – to get 194 officials to comply with their wishes irregularly. Instead, Zuma reportedly hid behind the fig leaf of the Air Force base not being a national key point, as it had been commonly referred to.
There were 85 people in the room of the NEC meeting who could have said “Comrade president, please tell us why this family is able to drop your name to get special privileges in the state? What is the nature of your relationship with them?” And it is not as if the people in the room did not want to know the answer. It is a source of mystery even to the president’s close allies.
Of course nobody did. Mantashe says he is not sure it was necessary as it is “not the business of the NEC” who the ANC’s leaders relate to in their personal capacity. Well, the thing is that it is the business of the ANC NEC when it impacts on the image of the ruling party and causes chaos in the state. The Mangaung conference clearly decided that ANC deployees need to be held accountable by the party for their performance and actions in the state. The resolutions certainly did not include a disclaimer for presidential deployees.
In an interview with Talk Radio 702 on Tuesday, Mantashe, while repeating that Zuma did not need to justify or explain his personal relationship with the Guptas, bemoaned the fact that the South African public did not trust anything coming from government. He said that despite the state investigation finding that Zuma was not involved in the Gupta plane saga, the public still believed it was a cover-up.
It obviously escapes Mantashe that the reason public trust and confidence is waning is that the ANC has done nothing to show that it holds its leaders accountable. Instead, the ANC goes beyond the bounds to close ranks and protect its leaders from scrutiny until independent institutions, such as the courts or Public Protector, force actions against them.
By protecting their leaders in the state, the ANC deployees labour under the false impression that they are also do not have to account to the citizens of South Africa, despite the Constitution stating otherwise. This is why the public is treated with contempt when it demands answers on burning issues from the president and members of his Cabinet.
The investigation by the team of directors-general did not find any culpability by members of the executive in the Gupta saga as they were subordinates who could not ask hard questions of their bosses. But the ANC could and should have asked those questions of the president and other members of Cabinet sitting in the NEC.
As long as the ANC is not able to hold its leaders in the state to account, it should not complain that the public does not trust its government.
ANC should never forget the disastrous end the last time it let its president get more powerful than the party. It was the time when facts didn’t matter if they didn’t serve the narrative. The evidence was building over several years that all was not well in the security agencies, to the point where infighting between the police and the prosecuting authority became deadly and the intelligence agencies turned on each other. But the ANC remained silent. It was only able to say “enough” when a high court judge pronounced that Mbeki was abusing his powers against Zuma.
But new times bring new challenges, though they may look not-so-vaguely familiar. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons the ANC can learn from the Guptagate disaster is that: Trust and accountability are inextricably linked; the ANC cannot demand one without offering the other. DM
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