South Africa

Pansy, say it ain’t so

By Stephen Grootes 27 August 2013

Ever calm and thoughtful, Pansy Tlakula was a palate cleanser in South Africa’s often foul tasting political banquet. The possibility of her suspension from the Electoral Commission over a failure to disclose conflict of interest in a lease agreement would have enormous repercussions on the political landscape: the loss of a steadfast hand on the tiller of next year’s elections. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

I’m often asked if I’m ever driven to tears by our politics, and if so which emotion I feel at the time. There were plenty of occasions when the tears came from frustration, there’ve been others, more recently, when I simply felt fed up with an untenable and wrong situation. And there’ve been others when the tears come from laughter. But today, the tears are coming from disappointment. We have very few people in our public life we trust completely, who we must trust completely. And when one of them falls, we’re all that much weaker for it.

I’ve known Pansy Tlakula for many years. She may not know this of course, but I’ve been one of those people who have bugged her for a sound bite, called her at some unearthly hour of the morning begging for an explanation of some arcane electoral point. Sitting in a live radio studio, waiting for the green light indicating her phone line was connected, the calm would immediately descend. Good, calm radio was on its way, delivered by someone who really has natural authority. If she were speaking at a conference, I’d stay.

And I was always rewarded. There was always something. Something that made you realise, in this country, this South Africa, there are people who really are impressive. Clever. Thoughtful. Able to deal with anything. She was one of those people who, when the chips were down, when you’d been following Julius Malema for a full week, could somehow cleanse your political palate in five minutes. You realised we were all going to be all right, because she was in charge, she would make sure everything worked properly.

Everything she touched, worked. Periodically, I would find myself in the cavernous election results centre at the Pretoria Showgrounds, surrounded by hundreds of my colleagues, all jostling, competing, laughing and gossiping. These were my happiest days as a journalist. Politicians you’ve been on the campaign trail with hugging you, Gwede explaining in great and excruciating detail why your predictions were wrong, Zwelinzima (may he now campaign in peace) laughing with you, Blade cracking jokes. And the numbers are coming in. The new political playing field is being set for the next five years. Power is being assigned. The people have spoken, and now the great listening begins.

The person at the centre of all this since 2002 has been Pansy Tlakula. She’s been organising these amazing gatherings of South Africans, from Umgeni to Umhlanga, from Tembisa to Houghton, everyone would gather in the same place, at the same time, to do the same thing. Knowing that their vote would count, properly. Trusting the people in charge.

And now we all feel let down. Because of some stupid building lease. Because Tlakula, who as an advocate, really really really should know better, didn’t disclose conflicts of interest. Because when the Public Protector came knocking, the IEC’s top officials didn’t respond properly. They didn’t hand over all the information that was needed. They didn’t just put their hands up and promise to deal with everything immediately and at once. Instead, expensive lawyers were involved.

It’s one of those moments when you feel the stuffing being knocked out of you. When the ground moves because everything you thought you knew is no more. It’s when you realise there really was a political conspiracy against President Jacob Zuma, or that no one will be punished for Waterkloof Air Force Base, or that the DA now controls a town in the North West. You suddenly have to question everything else you thought you knew.

It’s horrid.

What’s worse is what could follow. Under the Constitution, as Thuli Madonsela points out in her report the Electoral Commission (without Tlakula) and the speaker, Max Sisulu, now have to get together to work out what to do. Their advice goes to the President. Already, the DA and the United Democratic Movement (it was UDM leader Bantu Holomisa who laid the original complaint here) have already asked for Tlakula to be suspended.

It’s hard to argue against them. Quite frankly, if I had to pick between a dishonest chief judge and a dishonest IEC chair, I’d pick the judge. Some things have to be sacrosanct. Like Caesar’s wife, the head of the IEC has to be purer than pure, above reproach, better than all of us. Not someone who cocks up a bloody lease agreement. I mean really. Who does that? Bheki Cele?

So now Zuma will have to decide what to do. And the real question will be, as it always is in politics, if Tlakula goes who will replace her.

Here’s a little homework for you. Think of five South Africans who are neutral enough, respected enough, authoritative enough, and trusted enough to do that job. People who everyone, from the EFF and Agang, to the ANC and the DA, through to the Freedom Front Plus and the IFP will trust.

Still thinking? Me too.

And now, Zuma might have to find someone, just months before an election. As parties have already started to campaign, as people are already considering how to win this group over, and how to stop that group wearing blue shirts. When, already, politicians have started to lose their marbles.

Normally, you would simply pick someone else from the Electoral Commission to take over. But several of their number also don’t come out of this smelling particularly good. So some more thinking may be required.

There will now be some, those with their eyes very much on what happened up north recently, who will already start to question whether next year’s elections here will be credible. I won’t be one of them. I will miss Pansy Tlakula, sure. I will miss her steadiness and her firm hand on the unpredictable tiller that is this country at election time. But the processes in place at the IEC, the other people who are there, have grown in her image. The image I had of her before I read Madonsela’s report. I have faith in them. I have faith in the institution.

I also have faith in another fact, a process I know to be true. It’s that if you think a service delivery protest can be bad, it will be nothing compared to the anger of this electorate should it feel its vote has been scorned, has been trifled with, treated Zanu-PF style.

So next year’s elections will happen, on time. They will be credible. They will be well run. But probably not by Tlakula. DM

Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He’s been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

Photo: Electoral Commission CEO Pansy Tlakula speaks at a news conference at the Results Operations Centre in Pretoria, Monday, 16 May 2011 on the IEC’s readiness for the local government elections. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA


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