Thursday marked a year since Public Protector Thuli Madonsela presented South Africa with a 443-page document that would be the most damning indictment of our government in many respects. “Secure in Comfort”, the investigation report into the security upgrades at President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla residence, showed a breakdown of controls for procurement and services, maladministration, abuse of state resources, failure of high-ranking leaders in government to perform their duties appropriately and ethical violations by the president. A year later, with South Africa still bogged down with the issue and no remedial action taken, a touching lesson in public accountability was delivered by a young man grieving for his father. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
A year to the day that the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela released her bombshell report on Nkandla, government hosted a memorial service for the late Public Service and Administration Minister Collins Chabane in Pretoria. Since his death in a car crash on Sunday, there has been an outpouring of tributes about Chabane’s humility, work ethic and eschewing of extravagance. A great tragedy, perhaps, is that much of this was not acknowledged or appreciated while he was alive.
Delivering the main address at the memorial service, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said many in public life who had passed on had been remembered with respect and admiration, but it was “rare to find such a universal sense of personal loss for the untimely departure of Collins Chabane”.
“All week, people have been calling radio stations with stories of a man who spoke to everyone and listened to everyone; who stood in the queue with the regular folk for a toilet, rather than going to the VIP toilet; who insisted on being treated as a regular parishioner at his church rather than as a dignitary.”
He also told how on international travels, Chabane would chose for them to stay in the cheapest hotels, even with no air conditioning in the suffocating heat in Juba, South Sudan.
“It is difficult to remain ‘a man of the people’ when you are wearing the robes of power, but Collins Chabane showed us how to do it,” Ramaphosa said.
It was the unscripted speech of Chabane’s young son Matimba that was particularly moving and poignant. Matimba related how after his father’s appointment to Cabinet in 2009, it had been reported that Chabane had made use of his government credit card for personal use. Matimba Chabane said his father reimbursed the state and “showed us receipts proving he’d paid for it”. “He just wanted to take care of us and bought my sister and I Rice Crispies,” the young Chabane said.
Had Chabane not paid back the money, and let that isolated cloud hang over him, would his young son have been able to stand in front of 4,000 people and speak proudly about the honourable man his father was? The reason Matimba, in the midst of so much grief, was able to tell the world this story was because his father could distinguish right from wrong and died with an unsullied reputation.
Netwerk24 reported on Thursday that Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko had written to Speaker Baleka Mbete requesting a date when he could report to the National Assembly his long-awaited decision on whether President Jacob Zuma should pay back any money for the non-security upgrades at Nkandla, and, if so, how much. This was a deviation of the recommendation made by Madonsela that Zuma should take steps, with the assistance of the National Treasury and police, to determine “the reasonable cost” of upgrades that do not relate to security, and pay back this money. This would include the cost of the visitor’s centre, amphitheatre, cattle kraal, chicken run and swimming pool, she said.
She also recommended that Zuma should “reprimand” the ministers involved for the “appalling manner in which the Nkandla project was handled and state funds were abused”. Madonsela have Zuma 14 days to report to the National Assembly on his comments and actions on her report.
In August last year, five months after Madonsela released “Secure in Comfort”, Zuma submitted a report to Mbete stating that he instructed Nhleko to determine whether he is “liable for any contribution”. Madonsela raised concerns about her recommendations being disregarded and that a Cabinet minister, who did not have the legal standing to overrule her findings, had been tasked by the president to decide on the matter.
Zuma also said the Police Minister should expedite a review of the National Key Points Act, which determines security arrangements for properties protected by the state, and report to Cabinet periodically on the progress.
Zuma said the Minister of Public Works Thulas Nxesi should urgently report to Cabinet on the review of protocols and procedures regarding procurement, expenditure and oversight on prestige projects, which the upgrade of his Nkandla home was deemed to be. In the report, Zuma said the security cluster ministers and Nxesi should also report to Cabinet on their “clearly defined roles and responsibilities” when dealing with the security of the president and deputy president, as well as former presidents and deputy presidents.
He also wanted Cabinet to review its policy on the security of the president and deputy president, and former holders of these positions.
It is not clear whether any of these have been acted on as attention has been focused primarily on whether Zuma would pay back the money. The matter has dominated parliamentary politics with constant upheavals in the House due to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) demanding an answer. The issue has also polarised party relations, with most opposition parties uniting in various attempts to ensure accountability for the Nkandla matter and the ANC trying by all means to block these efforts. It has called into question the impartiality and conduct of the parliamentary presiding officers, particularly the Speaker, because of alleged bias in dealing with opposition parties.
The matter came to a head at the State of the Nation Address in February when EFF members were assaulted and removed from the House for interrupting the president’s speech. Last week, the Democratic Alliance proposed a motion of no confidence in the president, with his refusal to be held accountable for Nkandla being the central issue on which the arguments supporting the motion was based. Because of the preoccupation and fraught relations, the Nkandla matter has detracted from serious matters that Parliament deals with.
During his question session in Parliament earlier this month, Zuma again denied any personal responsibility or wrongdoing on the Nkandla upgrades. He also argued that Madonsela could only make recommendations and that these were not binding like court rulings. Zuma said he would not pay back any money until Nhleko had decided whether he should.
“But the determination has not been done. Why do you say I should pay the money when you don’t even know how much, you don’t even know whether the final answer will be that I should pay back the money,” Zuma said.
Now that Nhleko has made a decision, there is a possibility for closure on the matter. Parliament’s programming committee has to set a date for Nhleko to present his decision, but Zuma committed in his question session that it would be by the end of March. Zuma could respond to Nhleko’s decision immediately or in Parliament on 16 April or when he returns to respond to questions he could not complete in August when an EFF protest resulted in the session being suspended and riot police being called in.
If Nhleko says Zuma does not need to pay back any money, it will keep the matter dragging on. Opposition parties will not accept that answer because it will be inconsistent with Madonsela’s recommendations and because of the improper benefits at state expense that Zuma and his family will continue to enjoy in perpetuity. There can also be legal contestation over whether Nhleko has the powers to override Madonsela’s recommendations. The matter will be kept alive and continue to hang over government and the ANC.
If Nhleko decides some money should be paid back and Zuma agrees to do so, there is a possibility that Nkandla might fade off the national agenda. Opposition parties will not be able to keep beating Zuma and the ANC over the issue. It might have been a long, messy journey from when the upgrades began, to the attempts to subvert the Public Protector’s investigation, to the year-long process of dodging action on her recommendations. But it will be a great relief to the nation to move on from the issue and for government and opposition parties to deal with real issues affecting the country.
It was a great pity that Zuma was not at Chabane’s memorial service on Thursday to hear his son speak of the honourable man his father was. There was absolutely no shame on the young man’s face as he related the story about the media reporting that his father had used a government credit card to pay for personal expenses. This was because Matimba Chabane could proudly say that his father paid back the money and showed his children the receipts to prove he had. It spoke of his father’s honour and out of a lifetime of precious memories, that was one of the anecdotes he chose to share.
It was a great lesson in personal integrity and public responsibility for all those who serve in public office. There might be no greater honour than their children expressing pride at their conduct and service to their country. It is something Chabane’s colleagues should consider and ask whether they have earned such respect.
Perhaps the time will come when South Africans will be able to say grave mistakes were made on the Nkandla upgrades but the chapter has finally been closed, lessons were learnt and such abuses will never recur.
One can only hope. DM
Photo: Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, President Jacob Zuma (Greg Nicolson)
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