Public Protector Thuli Madonsela need not have addressed a media briefing on her current spat with the ANC. The public was not demanding answers from her; there were no substantial accusations about her conduct – only the ANC’s criticism that she undermined the parliamentary process by writing to President Jacob Zuma on Nkandla – and there was no real need for her to explain her powers and role. She did so anyway. The effect is that public opinion has swayed even more in her favour and the ANC will be even angrier and more combative. There is only one person who can defuse the situation now. But it is not in his interest to do so. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
When ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe decided he was going to put Public Protector Thuli Madonsela in her place, the first thing he should have done is his homework. You cannot accused a person like her, with an impeccable reputation and commitment to ethical conduct, of sneaking into Parliament to collude with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) without checking basic things. Was she in Cape Town? Was she at any publicised engagement that could expose the accusation as being stupid and baseless?
Turns out Mantashe did not do his homework.
Last Thursday, the day the EFF brought the House down during President Jacob Zuma’s question time in Parliament, Madonsela was in her office in Pretoria meeting with Communications Minister Faith Muthambi. This meeting was reported on widely, as Madonsela had issued a subpoena to force Muthambi to meet with her on Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s appointment as the permanent chief operating officer of the SABC.
So who were these ANC MPs who claimed to have seen Madonsela in the parliamentary precinct and why would they have passed false information to Mantashe? More importantly, why would the ANC secretary general stand up at a media briefing at the ANC headquarters and announce this untruth to the nation? Is the ANC that desperate to denigrate the Public Protector that it would put out this flimsy story that could easily be dismissed?
This accusation against Madonsela cannot be taken lightly. The ruling party has accused the head of a Chapter Nine institution of meeting clandestinely with an opposition party to collude against the president of the country. That opposition party then proceeded to embarrass President Jacob Zuma in the National Assembly, presumably on the basis of whatever information Madonsela would have passed on to them.
Contempt for the Public Protector does not get more serious than that. And that was not the only accusation. Mantashe had also accused Madonsela of embarking on an international roadshow to badmouth the country, of treating the president “almost as her personal project” and of leaking information from her office and then blaming the ANC for it. This latest spat with Madonsela followed the leak of a letter she wrote to Zuma to two Sunday newspapers. In the letter, Madonsela challenged Zuma on his response to Parliament on her report on the upgrades at his Nkandla home, and his failure to respond to her recommendations on remedial action. The ANC said it was concerned by her “behaviour and conduct” and accused Madonsela of undermining the parliamentary process by writing the letter.
It is no wonder that Madonsela could no longer hold back and decided to call her own media briefing to respond. One thing was obvious, even before she started speaking. Anything she would say would infuriate the ANC even further and lead to more venom being directed at her.
But Madonsela took the high road, even though she appeared to be riled by the attacks against her. “No problem is insurmountable when there is a will to solve it. The starting point though is to acknowledge that there is a problem.” She said the hysteria that followed the leak of her letter to Zuma not only compounded the problem but “was also symptomatic of more underlying problems, particularly regarding issues of trust, common decency and rational discourse”.
The issue has been further inflamed by Madonsela’s claim that she had been informed by one of the journalists that a senior ANC politician had leaked the letter to them. The ANC has now gone on a campaign demanding that she reveal the name of that politician.
“Those objecting to the letter not addressed to them say I had no authority to do so and in so doing I’m undermining Parliament. The truth is my office always follows up on remedial action and has done so with all organs of state, including the Presidency, without drama, even when similar matters were being attended to in Parliament,” Madonsela said.
She said even if Parliament had been unhappy about her actions, “the hysteria and mudslinging is not the way to go”. “The Public Protector is accountable to the National Assembly and the Speaker or Parliament could have called me anytime to account for my actions if such actions were viewed by Parliament as threatening or undermining its process.” Madonsela said she would then have had a chance to explain herself and that process would have been “sober and evidence based”.
“Untruths such as me being among others, a ghost in two places – in Parliament and having a meeting with Minister Muthambi in my office – at the same time would have had no place,” she said, responding indirectly to Mantashe’s accusation that there had been “tight coordination” between her and the EFF on an offensive against Zuma.
Madonsela appealed for an end to the mudslinging and attacks on her. “Can the name-calling stop? It’s not helpful for democracy, it’s not helpful for the country.” She made a point of saying that it was not the entire ANC that was against her and that she still had good relations with some leaders. Madonsela said she had served in the ANC and “taken up arms” for the organisation.
“A lot of those insulting me are old enough to have been in the trenches with me but they were not there when it was tough,” she said. “This hooliganism that masquerades as party spokesmanship must be reined in… You don’t throw mud and remain with clean hands.”
Even as Madonsela’s media briefing was in progress, the ANC headquarters official Twitter account @MyANC_ was taunting her to name the source of the leak and stated that she had missed the opportunity to undo the damage caused by her conduct.
But Madonsela has spelt out a way forward to move past the ugly spat. She will not charge the ANC with contempt, neither will she go to court to force compliance of her recommendations in the Nkandla report.
Madonsela said she wants to meet with Zuma and will also request an engagement with the presiding officers in Parliament. “From my side I will request a quiet meeting with the president to elicit his views and concerns with a view to a way forward that enables my office to continue to be a resource to his government and the people of South Africa in rooting out maladministration and other forms of improper conduct in state affairs,” she said.
In the midst of fiery exchanges over the Nkandla matter, Madonsela is a lone voice calling for “trust, common dignity and rational discourse”.
That may be far off. The ANC is unlikely to back down now, as they have come off looking worse from this week’s events.
Meanwhile in Parliament, another showdown is brewing over Speaker Baleka Mbete’s intention to suspend the entire EFF caucus of 25 MPs for their protest in the House last week. Mbete has asked the EFF MPs to inform her in writing why they should not be suspended. If she goes ahead with the move, it will be unprecedented for an entire party to be suspended from Parliament.
EFF leader Julius Malema said they would seek an urgent interdict in the high court to stop their suspension. Malema claimed the motive behind the suspension was to prevent EFF MPs from being in the House when Zuma returned to complete the question session that was disrupted last week. He said he would also not be able to participate in the Nkandla ad hoc committee meetings if he was suspended.
President Zuma has been in Russia over the past week, while all these issues have been boiling. Only he has the ability to turn the heat down in both these confrontations.
Madonsela said she has had a good relationship with the president, and now wants to meet him to find a way to work past the standoff. Zuma can call off the attack dogs to stop the assault on a Chapter Nine institution and also work with Madonsela to resolve the outstanding issues on Nkandla.
On the EFF, Zuma can indicate to the Speaker and the ANC that he will return to Parliament to answer Malema’s question. It is the only way to quash the issue before it grows into a messy battle in court.
But Zuma always acts in his best interest. Although he has the power to alleviate the madness, he would rather have the institutions of democracy such as Parliament and the Public Protector’s office under enormous strain as the ANC rallies to protect him.
For as long as the ANC continues on this path of questioning the Public Protector’s integrity, the security cluster ministers continues to create a scarecrow around the state and Parliament being threatened, and the Speaker keeps trying to clamp down on the EFF, the real issue remains clouded:
What happens to Madonsela’s recommendations and will Zuma be held to account? This is where primary focus should be, yet it continues to be buried under a mountain of other controversies and obscured by the findings of the government and Special Investigating Unit investigations.
As things stand, accountability is being diluted and constitutionalism is under assault. South Africa is venturing down a dark and dangerous road and the “trust, common dignity and rational discourse” Madonsela appealed for might be impossible to restore. DM
Photo: Public Protector Thuli Madonsela (photo: Daily Maverick), SA President Jacob Zuma (Photo: SAPA)