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When Jacob met Thuli: President stonewalls Public Prote...

South Africa

South Africa

When Jacob met Thuli: President stonewalls Public Protector on state capture probe

On Thursday, President Jacob Zuma and Public Protector Thuli Madonsela held their last official meeting in their current roles. It was not so the president could bid farewell to Madonsela and thank her for seven years of distinguished public service. Zuma was being interviewed as part of the Public Protector’s investigation into state capture by his friends, the Guptas. Zuma has obviously learnt nothing from the Nkandla fiasco. He has once more resorted to his “Stalingrad” strategy of obfuscating and dragging things out rather than providing straight answers. And Madonsela might have run out of time to crank open the Gupta chamber of secrets. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe is not the most lucid of speakers. Between his muttering and strange analogies, it is sometimes difficult to understand him. But speaking at a farewell dinner for Thuli Madonsela on Wednesday night, Mantashe was very measured and deliberate about the outgoing Public Protector and the ANC’s relationship with her.

It is not often possible to quote Mantashe at length. His sentiments about Madonsela, however, necessitate us doing so.

Mantashe said one of the things the ANC would miss about Madonsela was her visits to Luthuli House to ask “difficult questions”. He said he hoped this would continue when the new Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane takes office.

“You gave us a run for our money from time to time. That is the problem that goes with being a governing party… Even if things happen in government, the ANC cannot say ‘it’s not the ANC, it’s government’. We get dragged into that issue. So we had to run for cover from time to time,” Mantashe said.

Repeating what Gauteng Premier David Makhura had said earlier at the function, Mantashe told Madonsela:

“You also on a number of occasions saved us from ourselves. We would not acknowledge that publicly, we’d acknowledge it quietly.”

With a grin, Mantashe went on to say:

“I’m also sure that without the ANC, your term as Public Protector would not have been as exciting.”

Mantashe has been among senior ANC leaders who on occasion lashed out at Madonsela, questioning her agenda and condemning her modus operandi. But on Wednesday, he said the ANC was appreciative of her work, saying every one of her reports had “made us think”. Even though there had been times the ANC had been “hard” with Madonsela, “we appreciate every moment. Every report of the Public Protector was a point of learning.”

“I can assure you that you leave the ANC a wiser party as you go.”

And if that was not effusive enough:

“Let me tell you one thing I discovered today. We are debating in the ANC about having a woman president. I’ve discovered this woman president we’ve been talking about is yourself.”

But has everyone learnt lessons and emerged “wiser” from the epic battles with Madonsela? Apparently not President Jacob Zuma.

On Thursday, Zuma, his legal representative and advisers met with Madonsela in connection with her investigation into “state capture” by the Gupta family. The probe, requested by the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church, is broad. A statement issued by the Public Protector’s office described it as an “investigation into the alleged involvement of the Gupta family in the dismissal and appointment of Cabinet Ministers and members of Boards of Directors of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), consequent influence by the Gupta family on improper and possibly corrupt influence in the award of state contracts and licenses to companies linked to the family”.

According to the statement, the meeting with the president was “cordial”, although everything else in the statement suggests that it might not have been a pleasant encounter. The very fact that the president was again being interrogated by the woman who made him pay the state R7.8 million for home renovations he had no intention of paying for made for an awkward get together.

Madonsela has a week to go before she vacates her office and is determined to issue a preliminary report on the state capture probe in the next few days. To do this, she needed answers from the president about his knowledge and possible participation in the Guptas’ improper involvement in state affairs. Zuma, it would appear, is not so keen to cooperate to make this possible.

“For the greater part of the four-hour meeting, the president’s legal representative argued that the investigation be deferred to the incoming Public Protector, who he advised had been announced today, on the grounds that there wasn’t enough time to conclude the matter properly and that there was no reason for the investigation to be prioritised.”

Madonsela always exercises enviable restraint. But reading between the lines, it was evident in her statement that she was fed up having to deal with another duck-and-dive routine from the president.

“The president and his advisers further advised that the president had not had time to prepare answers with legal advice, given the investigation timelines. The meeting acknowledged that the president had been advised in writing by the Public Protector about the allegations made against him, including his suspected breach of the Executive Ethics Code on 22 March 2016.”

Short of saying the dog ate his homework, Zuma seems to have offered all manner of excuses to wriggle out of answering Madonsela’s questions. He resorted to his well-used “Stalingrad” strategy to hold out for as long as possible to avoid accountability.

Because Madonsela is working against the clock and couldn’t exactly pin the president down with the third degree, Zuma appears to have successfully shaken her off.

“After lengthy deliberations and taking into account that the case is a part-heard matter, it was agreed that the president would be given a set of questions and to answer same through an affidavit and to meet again with the Public Protector and provide answers on matters needing clarity.”

The statement did not say whether there would be a deadline for Zuma’s affidavit to be submitted or when he would meet with the Public Protector again. But it is unlikely to happen before Madonsela leaves office next Friday.

The task to follow up on the matter therefore falls to Madonsela’s successor, Mkhwebane, which is exactly what Zuma and his legal representative wanted in the first place.

It was ironic that on Thursday, Zuma’s office announced that he had appointed Mkhwebane as the new Public Protector and wished her “all the best in the execution of her new responsibilities”. In her first media interview, Mkhwebane told the SABC that the state capture would not be a priority for her. She said old cases that were a matter of “life or death” would take precedence over the state capture probe.

It seems rather serendipitous that both the president and Mkhwebane were both of the view on the same day that the state capture investigation should not be a priority.

Or perhaps it is not serendipity.

What has the president learnt from the last bout with the Public Protector and the chaos the Nkandla matter caused? From attempts by the security cluster to frustrate the Public Protector’s investigation to the president not answering many of her questions, the ANC running interference to prevent the implementation of the remedial action, Parliament becoming a battle zone and the Constitutional Court finding that president had violated the Constitution, Nkandla was a rolling disaster.

Zuma apologised to the nation for the “confusion and frustration” the Nkandla matter had caused; one would think that he would try to avoid a rerun on the state capture probe.

But Zuma clearly wants the clock to run out on Madonsela. Once she is out of his hair, he and the Guptas will seek new ways to deflect attention from the probe. And with Mkhwebane already declaring that her attention would be elsewhere, the pressure will be off them.

There is one week to go for Madonsela to produce a preliminary report that will show whether there is substance to allegations of state capture. She has already met with one of the Gupta brothers and several people who made allegations about the family offering Cabinet posts and trying to influence state contracts. She does not have all the evidence yet and did not get any answers from Zuma but she can still shine a light on the Gupta dealings as her parting shot.

If Mantashe is genuine about what he said about Madonsela and the ANC really wants to discover the truth about state capture, this will not be the end of the affair. And if there is something there, opposition parties, civil society and the media will certainly keep looking and asking questions.

Five working days. Over to you Makhadzi. DM

Photo: [Left] South African president Jacob Zuma reacts during a question and answer session in Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 17 March 2016. EPA/SUMAYA HISHAM; [Right] Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, Picture: Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick


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