Different countries with different political cultures and systems tend to throw up different types of scandals. There's the French bribery scandal (usually involving an oil or arms firm), the classic American sex scandal involving some silly politician and an intern, and the wonderfully British resignation because of something an advisor did once upon a time. In South Africa, we had the Apartheid era Info Scandal. But times have changed. And if you want to know what the classic Zuma-era scandal is, you need to mention just one location. Nkandla. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
When you look at political scandals, no matter where and when they happen, whether they involve sex with an unpaid female employee or cash in brown envelopes from exotically accented men in raincoats, they all involve a similar dynamic. It’s never the scandal that kills you. It’s the cover-up. If you don’t believe that, a quick read of the briefest of biographies of Richard Nixon will put you right. The point is, that usually there is the original sin. The thing you did you should not have done. And then, at the first hint that someone might discover what you did, you try to hide it. Sometimes you get away with it. But often, you’re just raising the stakes.
Nkandla is a classic scandal in this mould.
First there was the original sin (look, it wasn’t Zuma’s original sin, okay, but you get the drift). The R206m of government money spent on transforming a tiny dusty structure into something that would impress a time-travelling member of the Borgia family. Fine. The money was spent. It was wrong, and hard to justify.
Then the first cover-up. This was when Public Works Minster Thulas Nxesi told the nation at the end of January, that yes, to coin a famous headline about the Info Scandal, “It’s all true”. Yes, government had spent the money. Yes, on the personal residence of just one person. Yes, this is a government that has as its “apex priority” education. But never mind, the Number One priority here was the Number One himself.
Then came the spin. That money, the over two hundred million rand, wasn’t actually spent on the property itself, but merely on “security upgrades”. And as the nation racked its brain considering what kind of upgrades could be worth that much, came the promise of a series of investigations.
The first would be an investigation by Nxesi’s ministry itself. Then the Special Investigating Unit would launch its own probe. And these would be looking not at the upgrades mind, but into how contractors were able to push up the prices so high.
Right then, okay, Mr Nxesi; we all believe you.
Now fast forward to the present day. You may need to sit down for this bit.
Did you know that, a full five months after Nxesi’s promise that the SIU would investigate, it hasn’t started that investigation? And the stated reason? You’re gonna love this. There’s a major legal fight around whether the investigation promised by Nxesi is covered by the President’s original proclamation or not. The SIU can only investigate by Presidential Proclamation, and until the ink is dry, it can’t do anything. Or that’s what we’re told.
Then we have the Public Works investigation. As you probably know already, it was declared Top Secret by the State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele last week. The basis for this was only a set of recommendations by Cabinet on how information should be managed. As Pierre de Vos pointed out, it’s a complete nonsense. De Vos suggests that even if someone were prosecuted, there is no legal basis on which to get a conviction.
Wits Law Professor David Unterhalter took things further on Wednesday, saying that even if the legal defence that no crime was committed failed for some reason, a judge would still have to rule on whether it was right to classify this particular information as “Top Secret”.
In short, the obvious rejoinder from any accused would be to ask why the document was not made public, with certain changes that would ensure the president’s security was not put in jeopardy. The fact is, there is no possible answer to that question. The only answer has to be that it did not suit Number One for this report to be released.
And this is where we get to the very South African nature of this scandal.
It’s actually about deployment, and the principle that if you appoint the right people to the right jobs, then your original sin will always be hidden.
In this case, Number One pulls the strings. He appointed Nxesi. Nxesi can do nothing more than order his officials to investigate.
But the real person whose string has been pulled in this case is Cwele. He came from KZN with Zuma in 2009. His wife had an unfortunate day job. You know, one that includes a long-term jail sentence. So, if he wants to hang onto his job, he needs to make sure Number One is protected. And, there’s the fact that he would have known, when he took the job, this would have to be respected.
Still, there are some offices which Zuma can’t control, where the appointments that were made haven’t worked out in his favour. Where he can’t, through his usual remote control, ensure that the right decisions are made at the right time, for his benefit.
These are the Public Protector and the Auditor-General. Both Thuli Madonsela and Terence Nombembe are independent, and have shown they’ll pursue something like Nkandla without fear or favour. And to make matters worse for Number One, there’s no way this spending is not in their mandate. It’s government money, so Nombembe has to look through the books, and the entire population of the country has the right to complain to Madonsela that this money has been misspent.
And this is where the top secret classification is so important. Because now this report cannot be seen by either Nombembe or Madonsela. As far as they are concerned, together with the rest of South Africa, the Nkandla report does not exist.
Voila! Problem solved.
And so, dear reader, we have all the ingredients of our typical South African Scandal. We have the original sin, and then the spin. And then the actual cover-up in which deployees make sure Number One is protected, firstly, by simply not investigating, and secondly, by renaming & relocating the very same problem to a place unreachable to those who cannot be otherwise controlled.
Unfortunately for us, the way our typical South African Scandals work, the real sinners never seem to get punished. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma & Siyabonga Cwele, minister of state security visited injured mineworkers at Lonmin’s Marikana mine on Friday evening, 17 August 2012. Picture: GCIS/SAPA
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.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon