South Africa

SONA2015: The Consequences

By Stephen Grootes 16 February 2015

There have been so many turning points in our politics in the last eighteen months or so that it seems somehow pointless to label last week’s events as yet another. Certainly, however, the jamming of cell-phone signals, the violent ejection of the EFF, and the incredible security around Parliament point to the sense of incredible insecurity on the part of several crucial decision-makers. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

By Friday, the spin cycle was in full swing: there would be a “proper investigation” was the line, we’d find out who was responsible, etc, etc. It’s all bogus. There is no way this happened without the say-so of those who are really in charge. And those in charge are now going to control the investigations as well. While it may feel not the way it should be in true democracy, in the longer run, it is probably only the ANC that will suffer damage as a result of all Thursday night’s chaos.

It is impossible to look at the statements, comments and answers given from people within the ANC over the last few days, and not smell panic. First, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe spent almost his entire Friday explaining what had happened, why it was the EFF’s fault, and trying to evade questions about who jammed cell-phones. He repeatedly claimed that no one should speculate about what had happened until Parliament had finished “its internal process”. Parliament did pretty much the same thing. Eventually, on the Midday Report, Radebe admitted that “some” of the men who had physically forced out the EFF MPs were actually police officers. And Parliament, after saying for much of the day that it didn’t know what had happened to cellphone reception, gave in and said it would investigate who was behind the jamming.

But clearly the panic wasn’t confined to just those people. Even the Presidency had to issue a long statement on Saturday explaining (again) how President Jacob Zuma wasn’t avoiding questions, how that address was not the time to put questions to him, and then came an unexpected line: “President Zuma also condemns the jamming of cellular phones in the National Assembly. Rumours that the president was informed of this act are incorrect and baseless.”

Clearly Zuma and Mac realised that they had to get behind the outrage, rather than be the target of it. It is exactly the same strategy that the ANC followed in the aftermath of the Gupta landing at the Waterkloof Airforce base. Then, Gwede Mantashe himself, as secretary general of the ANC, issued a statement, in his own name, calling for a swift action, a proper investigation, and those responsible to be held accountable.

Radebe himself was appointed to lead an inter-ministerial task team to investigate and hold those responsible to account. The net result, one head of protocol became an ambassador to The Netherlands (appointed by Zuma himself, no less). That is all. All the other investigations led nowhere, senior air force officers were charged, but the charges were withdrawn. That showed us that all of the outrage, the promises of investigation, etc., had been simple avoidance tactics.

Exactly the same process has been followed with Nkandla. There separate investigations were carried out, but all by people controlled, in the end, by Luthuli House. The intelligence committee of Parliament is dominated by the ANC, the SIU probe was limited only to the contractors who carried out the upgrades and not those who made the decisions to carry them out (again, Zuma controls the SIU, he has to issue a proclamation to allow it to investigate any particular issue) and the entire process was shooed along by Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi.

From the probes controlled by the ANC, only the SIU has named any suspect, the architect Mineenhle Makhanya. As this publication reported last week it is now possible that that case may also collapse. Makhanya is asking for certain documents relating to the upgrades to be de-classified. Government is refusing. Which may provide just enough of a smokescreen for those involved to get away with the monetary equivalent of blue murder.

Of course, the one investigation that was not controlled by government was that of the Public Protector. And we all know what she found.

With these two cases as precedent, it seems almost inevitable that exactly the same is going to happen with the investigation into last week’s cell-phone jamming. The machinery of Parliament is controlled, in the end, by the Speakers, and they are appointed by the ANC. And so surely their investigation is never going to name any one person has being responsible. And if they do, they will find a way to ensure that person is never properly punished.

Having said all of that, that doesn’t mean that those responsible will not suffer any consequence at all. As always in politics, for any act there is a cost. Malema’s act cost him and his caucus some cuts and bruises, it may also cost him some support among the general public, as he has shown he won’t follow any rules. The ANC is not exempt here.

But it is unarguable that what happened on Thursday is not likely to have won any new votes for the ANC. No one who didn’t vote for the ANC last year is now going to vote for them because they used the physical force of the state to throw out the EFF. And while Parliament’s TV feed didn’t show the actually throwing-out, so many people took videos and pictures that they will circulate endlessly for months, and end up being seen at any taxi-rank near you. When the Daily Sun puts Parliament on its billboards, you know that the SABC is not going to be able to control this narrative in quite the way it used to.

At the same time, it appears the ANC itself still can’t think unemotionally on this issue. The Sunday Times says Baleka Mbete referred to Malema as a “cockroach” who must be beaten, while speaking at an ANC North West conference on Sunday. That kind of comment is almost guaranteed to turn off some, if not many, middle class black urban voters. While they may not actively vote for another party, certainly some must be having second thoughts about voting for what the ANC appears to have become.

There are, of course, other consequences as well. Parliament under Mbete has shown that it can no longer be trusted. If you jam cell phone signals and prevent the TV feed from showing the images of the EFF MPs being thrown out, you are inviting a response. When it comes, it’s going to be from media organisations who will now demand, in court, the right to have their own cameras, under their own control, in the National Assembly. It seems hard to see how they could possibly lose that case. Parliament has previously banned other cameras in the house, claiming it will always provide the images itself. It’s a simple diversity of media argument: Parliament cannot be the monopoly on these images; it can’t be trusted – therefore more than one camera will now have to be allowed. And there is no way the claim, made by Mbete previously, that the cameras were switched off to “protect the integrity of Parliament” will be accepted by a court in this country.

This means that in the end, certain aspects of Parliament’s machinery may no longer be under the sway of Mbete as they were in the past.

What happened on Thursday night, the way those in charge behaved, tells us one simple thing: they are now worried about losing power. DM


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By Marianne Merten