South Africa

Dishonourable Dina says she’s sorry, sort of

By Rebecca Davis 21 August 2013

And so it came to pass that on 20 August 2013 a former minister stood up in front of a room filled with her peers and received a sound dressing down for wrongdoing. And thence it happened that the disgraced ex-minister said sorry to the Parliament of South Africa. It wasn’t a very long apology. It wasn’t even a very convincing apology. But the whole spectacle made you realize how rarely this all happens. By REBECCA DAVIS.

When last did the National Assembly make one of its members stand up in public, at a plenary session, to receive a reprimand? Ex-National Prosecuting Authority boss Bulelani Ngcuka got a “mild rebuke” from the National Assembly in 2004, for “prejudicing the dignity” of deputy president Zuma by alleging there was evidence of Zuma’s involvement in corruption, but Ngcuka didn’t have to turn up to receive it.

In 2003, Tony Yengeni was spared the public embarrassment of having to account for his actions to the House, following his admission that he was guilty of fraud after having told the National Assembly that he had legitimately purchased a 4×4. Opposition parties and erstwhile speaker Frene Ginwala wanted to see Yengeni face the music himself, but the ANC pushed through a solution that saw Yengeni account to a committee, rather than the whole National Assembly.

In 2002, the National Assembly unanimously accepted the finding of the parliamentary ethics committee that Winnie Mandela should be publicly reprimanded and fined for failing to disclose financial interests. Winnie, unsurprisingly, wasn’t present when this passed in the House, but she was so resolute on avoiding this punishment that she took Parliament to court. The Cape High Court ended up dismissing this bid, but the matter proved moot because after being convicted of fraud, she resigned all her parliamentary positions.

ANC MP Yolanda Botha initially had the whole book thrown at her by the parliamentary ethics committee in 2011 for failing to disclose financial interests, but after intervention by the chief whips the report was sent back and Botha emerged with a much lighter penalty. Had this not been the case, Botha would have faced Pule’s fate in the House.

In 2007 the MPs implicated in the Travelgate scandal for misusing travel vouchers were the targets of a “stinging” public rebuke in the National Assembly by speaker Baleka Mbete, who said at the time that she could do no more than name and shame them. There was no responding public apology forthcoming from the MPs on that same occasion.

This is all by way of making the point that Tuesday’s events in the National Assembly are by no means common in South Africa’s Parliament. Most people are in agreement that Pule deserved the harshest penalties for misdeeds including abuse of her position and attempts to mislead Parliament, but that didn’t stop the spectacle of her public shaming being rather gruesome to behold. Politics is a nasty business, especially when you get caught.

Tuesday was the first day back in the National Assembly for parliamentarians, which meant a certain amount of business had to be attended to before the Dina Punishment Show, including lengthy tributes to deceased judge Pius Langa. When business turned to Pule, matters kicked off with the ANC’s Ben Turok, head of the ethics committee, who once again stressed the unanimity of the committee’s findings and the length and difficulty of the process that led them there. He hoped, he said, that the House would adopt their findings in the same “non-partisan spirit” that the multi-party committee had brought to bear on the issue.

In addition to detailing affairs around Pule’s problematic relationship with Phosane Mngqibisa, Turok also touched on the scandalous allegation that Mngqibisa might have been involved in a plot to assassinate Turok and Parliament’s registrar of members’ interests Fazela Mohamed.

Mngqibisa had at one point arrived in Parliament with a bodyguard who had “interfered” with Mohamed during a coffee break, Turok said. A man had subsequently allegedly been approached to forge certain documents (to exonerate Mngqibisa and Pule) and to arrange “a hit” on Mohamed and Turok. Both of them have since been provided with security. Turok repeated the fact that reports have been forwarded to the police and the NPA for investigation.

After Turok, it was up to ANC chief whip Stone Zizani to recommend that the ethics committee’s report was adopted, which received no objections. Then came time for the public rebuke to be issued by speaker Max Sisulu, for which Pule, sitting at the back of the room, was required to stand. Pule stood stony-faced, staring ahead with her hands clasped, while Sisulu read out the rebuke. It didn’t beat around the bush. The charges Pule had been found guilty of were “extremely serious”. Pule had “gravely undermined people’s trust” and “brought the House into disrepute”. She had “wilfully” misled the ethics committee.

“Your direct contravention of the Constitution by allowing your position to be used to benefit your permanent companion shows indifference to our Constitution and is unacceptable,” Sisulu said. Pule’s 15-day suspension from Parliament would be active from Wednesday, together with the docking of a month’s salary.

Sisulu concluded, and offered Pule the opportunity to speak. She took it.

“I want to say to this house that I gave the best I could do to do my job, and that if in the course of me doing my job I made a mistake, I am sorry, I apologise,” she said.

As far as apologies go, it’s not great. It’s not even an unequivocal admission of guilt. “In the course of me doing my job” is a phrase that makes it sound as if Pule’s misdeeds were a sad but logical entailment of her carrying out her duties as communications minister, rather than the knowing abuse of her position to spoon-feed a lover R6-million contracts and whisk him round the world on the department dime. And that conditional if suggests a refusal to face up to her wrongdoing, which smacks of either denial or sheer arrogance.

But “Apology accepted,” said Sisulu, and the House applauded. Just afterwards, a recess was called and ANC MPs were witnessed gathering around Pule in an apparent show of support. “Dina Pule should be suspended and not hugged,” ran the headline of a press statement subsequently put out by DA chief whip Watty Watson.

“The manner in which the chief whip and numerous ministers displayed support for Dina Pule in the House indicates that [the ANC] intend to only give her a slap on the wrist,” the DA continued, calling for a full disciplinary process against Pule to be instituted within the ANC.

There’s little sign that this will happen, though the ANC put out their own statement following Pule’s rebuke saying that the party supported a review of the sanctions available to Parliament and the legislature to deal with misconduct. “The African National Congress acknowledges the gravity of the allegations against Comrade Dina Pule,” the statement read. “Consequently, the ANC will closely follow the processes to unfold as recommended by the National Assembly, including amongst them the referral of the matter to our law enforcement agencies.”

While Pule retreats to lick her wounds (or plot revenge, depending on your cynicism), her replacement, Yunus Carrim, appears to be tackling his new portfolio with no end of vim. Formerly deputy minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, Carrim was in fine form when he appeared before Parliament’s communications committee just a few hours before Pule was due to receive her scolding.

Carrim’s appointment as communications minister raised some eyebrows, with some expressing concern over the fact that the former sociologist lacks a background in technology, and the DA carping about his status as an “ardent communist”. Carrim poked fun at the latter criticism on Tuesday, joking that he had consulted the works of Stalin for advice on the issue of digital migration.

Though he admitted that the department was “challenged in several ways” following Pule’s departure, Carrim’s major preoccupation was to present a more upbeat view of the department’s prospects. “If it is not as good as it should be, it is also not as bad as is made out in the public domain,” Carrim said. He has some big challenges ahead, even though communications is not generally the most “political” portfolio, as an opposition MP suggested. Apart from the digital migration issue and the tangled mess that is the running of the national broadcaster, perhaps the biggest issue any minister in his position must face, is the question of how to tackle the “digital divide” in a country as unequal as South Africa.

Assuming that Pule returns after her allotted suspension, her parliamentary future lies in the backbenches of the transport portfolio committee, a far cry from the jet-setting lifestyle of a communications minister. But questions still hang over a number of other officials named in the ethics committee’s report as having given the panel “unreliable and untrustworthy” evidence to try to throw them off the scent of the Pule saga. One of these, deputy director general Sam Vilakazi, appeared by Carrim’s side on Tuesday, with Carrim saying that he was awaiting the outcome of a Public Service Commission investigation. We’ll be watching to see whether any penalties await. DM

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