On Saturday, at one of those rare press conferences where a group of cabinet ministers all speak together during a weekend, it appeared as if what government calls its "security cluster" had declared open warfare against Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. At issue was a provisional report written by her, after she was asked to investigate government's spending on "security upgrades" to President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla residence. On Friday, these ministers had gone to court, saying that our national security would be at risk if the report were released in its current form. Their main claim is that Madonsela has been unreasonable in refusing their request for "more time" to study the report, and then comment on it. While there's plenty of blame for both sides here, one party might well be more trustworthy than the other. But there's more than enough shades of grey to go around. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
A group of ministers going to court to stop the Public Protector from releasing a document about the amount of money being spent by government on the president’s house is always going to be a big deal. Shorn of all context, it’s a big deal. It shows that there is more than a healthy tension between the different arms of government. For many people (well, a cynic like me, at any rate), it’s going to suggest that someone is being less than fully transparent.
But when we add context to this case, the case of the ministers starts to lose a certain weight. There have been several investigations into government’s spending on Nkandla. None of them have seen their results properly made available to the public. The Public Works probe was famously, and improperly, classed as “Top Secret”; other probes seemed to just disappear. But the Public Protector’s investigation was always going to be different. In the public mind, because of the ANC’s system of “deployment”, anyone who worked in government was never going to be seen as fully independent in this situation. Who was really going to stick their head above the parapet and make the career-limiting finding that Zuma himself, or a minister acting on his behalf, had spent so much money on one residence?
But Thuli Madonsela has the public image of someone who is transparent, follows the law, and is not afraid of Zuma, or anyone. Which means that when she finally started investigating Nkandla, her progress was watched very closely indeed. Not to put too fine a point on it, this was the investigation many people thought would finally get to the truth.
Bear in mind that her opponents in this issue, the “security cluster” has form. It’s the same group of people who conducted that high-level investigation into the Guptas’ Waterkloof landing, and resolved that exactly one official was responsible. And that person was simply demoted slightly. So this group of ministers was always going to find it hard to bat at Madonsela’s weight in the court of public opinion.
That said, it’s worth going through some of the court documents in this case. Perhaps the crucial passage from the ministers’ affidavits is this:
If the provisional report is released in its current form as intended by the respondent on 9 November 2013, the applicants will suffer irreparable harm and the security of the state and safety of the president will be severely compromised. The applicants are entitled to an extension of time as requested in order for them to comprehensively comment on matters of security that appear in the provisional report. The respondent’s refusal to grant the extension is unreasonable and unwarranted. A mere extension of 7 days will do no harm to the respondent despite her determination to have her provisional report released soonest.
It is hard to argue with that. What harm would an extension of seven days indeed do to Madonsela? We’ve waited long enough for this thing; we can wait a little bit more.
And while we’re here, notice the conflation of “security of the state and safety of the President”. But that’s a piece for another day, and should really be written by Pierre de Vos.
The ministers’ papers then go on to include various letters from Madonsela. In one of them, rejecting their request for more time she makes a very simple point:
I am of the view that a such issues, if any, should be glaringly obvious to the Ministers of the Security Cluster from reading the report that should, at the most, not take more than two days.
That’s pretty sharp and to the point. This is a document that is 357 pages long. That’s shorter than some pieces on this website by Ivo Vegter or Brooks Spector. Surely these ministries have people who can read this document in that time, confer, and then make their recommendations? And if not, why not?
Having said all of that, surely the original point must stand. If the report were released early, some harm could occur. It would be up to Madonsela to prove what harm could occur if the report were delayed by seven days.
However, there are still several questions that emerge from this. And don’t hold your breath waiting for the answers.
Firstly, why does this need the attention of the entire “security cluster”? Does it affect State Security? Perhaps. The Police Ministry? Maybe. Defence? Surely not (do they suddenly provide protection for the President? That’s a police function, considering VIP guards are police officers). Justice? Of course not. And the presence of Jeff Radebe as Justice Minister chairing this cluster could add to the perception that this is about protecting Zuma. He’s sometimes seen as Zuma’s enforcer on issues like the National Prosecuting Authority.
No doubt government could give a cogent reason as to why all of these ministers need to be involved. But it could still be painted as an attempt to intimidate.
Some other questions: What is it with all the secrecy and paranoia around the president’s safety in the first place? This goes back to Zuma’s days as deputy president, when he had the blingiest VIP detail there was. Everything about him is somehow kept secret, including the complete lack of detail on some aspects of his history, and his family.
When you consider that this reporter has had to haul VIP guards off a colleague for simply taking a picture of one of Zuma’s cars [Now, Stephen, we know you are built like a rugby prop – Ed], you have to ask if this is just another aspect of the paranoia that sometimes seems to cloak the Presidency. Sure, a head of state needs protection. Is Zuma more vulnerable to some threat than many of the other heads of state in our neighbourhood?
And more generally, what is it about Nkandla that seems to get everyone in government in such a tizz? It just adds to the claims that there is indeed something to hide.
Predicting how this will play out is tough. De facto, the cluster has at least part of its postponement. Presumably they are using the time to study the report. If they then comment on it and follow the process, then this could all be a storm in a teacup, a footnote at the bottom of a page in a pretty big chapter of a history of Zuma around Nkandla. But if they do not do that, if there is any other attempt to delay this, then more and more people are going to be convinced that this is all about a cover-up.
And it’s all about protecting Number One. DM
Grootes lives in a compound that is smaller than the two astroturf football fields at Nkandla. He pays his mortgage himself, by being the Senior Political Reporter for Eyewitness News, and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. His book, SA Politics Unspun, includes a full section on Nkandla. And no, that’s not the only controversy it covers.
Photo of Thuli Madonsela by Greg Nicolson.
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