South Africa

Reporter’s Parliamentary Notebook: It’s corporate capture, states Cyril, now let people clear their names

By Marianne Merten 14 June 2017

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday told MPs he supported a commission of inquiry into “current allegations in the public domain”, a reference to #GuptaLeaks without actually naming them. During his question time slot in the House, Ramaphosa consistently referred to “corporate capture”, not state capture. It’s an important nuance, one that seeks to shift the focus from the state governed by the ANC. A few hours later Public Protector Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane announced “a preliminary investigation” to determine the merits of claims of improper conduct against officials in Eskom, Transnet and the Passenger Rail Authority of South Africa (Prasa) - and the role of two public enterprises ministers, Malusi Gigaba and his successor Lynne Brown. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

The ANC has included fighting corruption as a priority on its election manifestos going back several polls. Government, in an effort to popularise its anti-corruption efforts, recently launched a national anti-corruption discussion document.

Central also is the Anti-Corruption Task Team (ACTT) that brings together the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), South African Revenue Service (SARS), the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) and the Financial Intelligence Centre. It’s one of those multifaceted, multi-pronged, multi-everything entity offered as a one-stop shop solution.

But just hours before Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Q&A in the National Assembly on Wednesday, Parliament’s watchdog on public spending, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), heard of delays in bringing state officials to account on corruption, fraud, tender irregularities and similar charges.

The Anti-Corruption Task Team presented Scopa with an update of cases in progress, some of them dating back over a decade. The information was contained in two fat dossiers: 111 pages on provincial department, or 284 cases, and 244 pages on cases at municipalities. MPs were also told of 31 cases at national departments, of which only one was in court, 28 were still under investigation and two were before the NPA for a decision.

MPs across the political spectrum again raised concerns that, first, it took extremely long to take action against officials implicated in corruption, tender irregularities and fraud and, second, there were few if any consequences for wrongdoing. The result frequently was a slap on the wrist, suspended sentences and plea bargains.

Scopa chairperson Themba Godi said the committee was “shocked and disappointed” to be told all the cases that were finalised were settled through plea bargains. “None of the cases were fully prosecuted through convictions, meaning that all of them are outcomes where corrupt people have negotiated their way out of prison, which largely defeats the objective of using sentencing as a deterrent against corruption,” Godi said in a statement.

Scopa is one thing, state capture quite another kettle of fish. The ANC Youth League this week argued against the authenticity and manner of release of the #GuptaLeaks emails. But in official public statements Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba and Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo confirmed the veracity of documents relating to them – respectively the granting of citizenship to several members of the Gupta family, and being sponsored for travel and accommodation by a Gupta-linked company – while Presidency chief operating officer Lakela Kaunda confirmed to the Sunday Times that she had rejected approaches by Gupta-associated companies.

The tens of thousands of emails trace a web of influence by the Gupta family and associated companies and business partners to the top echelons of state officials and politicians as well as key state-owned entities (SOEs), particularly the power utility Eskom, arms corporation Denel and transport state-owned entities like the Prasa.

Late on Wednesday evening, just before 11pm, Mkhwebane in a statement announced the focus of her preliminary probes of the abuse of public funds by officials at Eskom (the Tegeta coal deal, and former acting CEO Matshela Koko channelling contracts to his daughter), Transnet (R5.3-billion kick-backs in the locomotive procurement) and, at Prasa, the possible failure of Deputy Minister Sifiso Buthelezi to declare his interests while board chair.

This preliminary probe would also cover the roles “of Minister Lynne Brown in the re-appointment of Mr Brian Molefe” and “then Minister of Public enterprises Malusi Gigaba in the appointment of Iqbal Sharma and Mr Molefe to Transnet board of directors, chair of the board acquisition and disposal committee, and senior management respectively”.

But there is a rider. “Although the Public Protector is empowered to initiate her own initiative investigation… she may not be able to due to capacity constraints of less than 200 investigators nationwide,” Mkhwebane’s statement said.

Earlier on Wednesday Ramaphosa was resolute: it was not state capture, but corporate capture. It was important for SOEs “not to be captured by corporate or private interests”, he replied to what, in an unusual twist, was not the usual sweetheart question from the ANC soliciting accounts of government successes.

“It is important to attend to current allegations in the public domain … if we are to restore confidence in the SOEs… to safeguard their integrity,” Ramaphosa replied to ANC MP Mondli Gungubele’s question. And the deputy president added it was in the interests of all South Africans that a commission of inquiry should be established, while law enforcement agencies must “give the allegations full attention”, including establishing the veracity of the emails.

Asked by EFF MP Hlengiwe Hlophe whether he personally supported such a commission of inquiry, Ramaphosa said: “Yes I do.” The reasons? The allegations are all around and “anyone who is affected should welcome to go before an independent body to explain, clear their name”.

That was the message, and Ramaphosa stayed on message in response to African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) MP Steve Swart, and DA MP David Maynier. But in replying to ACDP leader Kenneth Meshoe’s question on ethical leadership, Ramaphosa admitted that “the allegations of corporate capture… undoubtedly and understandably undermined confidence in our public institutions and government… That we have to admit”.

In Ramaphosa’s oration style of emphasising joint action and South Africa being everyone’s business, he diplomatically rebuffed the prickly aspects of Meshoe’s question into an appeal for active citizenry, highlighting that there were many ethical leaders in political parties, the public service and civil society. “Now is the time for these people to come to the fore and become engaged in active citizenship. They need to expose wrongdoing. These leaders need to demonstrate to our country there are ethical leaders willing to take up people’s concerns…. (and to) lead from the front with honesty and integrity.”

A chilled caution “not to try being holier than thou” was given to DA MP Sej Motau, who asked how ethical leadership was possible given the spy tape saga or dropping of 786 corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma in April 2009, and the Nkandla debacle. Said Ramaphosa: “Mishaps in ethical behaviour can happen to anyone, can happen to any organisation. When they do happen, they need to be properly processed and addressed. That is the important thing we should focus on. Our commitment to the values enshrined in the Constitution should be our lodestar.”

But, of course, any talk of a commission of inquiry into state capture, or corporate capture as Ramaphosa prefers, is just that – talk. The matter is stuck in the courts. And on Wednesday any moves to have a parliamentary state capture inquiry, as proposed by the DA, remained mired in verbiage at the Chief Whips’ Forum, according to two sources with direct knowledge of proceedings.

Ramaphosa’s response that Zuma was not opposed to such a commission of inquiry, and that actually he was consulting his lawyers on this, was an artful political dodge.

Zuma took the public protector’s November 2016 State of Capture report recommending such a commission of inquiry on review to court. The Presidency in a statement said this was not because Zuma opposed the commission, but out of concern a wrong precedent would be set by not challenging the public protector’s recommendation that the chief justice, not the president, should appoint the judge to head this inquiry. It was the president’s prerogative to establish commissions of inquiry, from who should head these to their terms of reference.

Similarly, on Monday Zuma filed opposing papers to the DA’s move for a declaratory order that the president had failed to implement the public protector’s remedial actions, the commission of inquiry. According to a Presidency statement, Zuma was advised that if he were to implement the remedial actions, then his review application would be “academic”.

A hearing of Zuma’s review of “State of Capture” is scheduled in early October. It would still take time for a judgement, which then may well be taken on appeal. Weeks or months could pass from the date of that hearing – quite likely pushing any concrete outcome until after the ANC national elective conference in December.

In the wake of the criticism incurred over the Nkandla debacle – played out, according to analysts, in the stark drop of election support to 54% from 62% in the 2016 municipal poll – the ANC is not deaf to calls for a state capture inquiry from opposition parties like the DA and EFF, business, civil society and others.

It is perhaps against this background that the ANC national executive committee (NEC) recently expressed concern about the #GuptaLeaks, and the “very worrying claims about the nature of the relationship between government and private interests”.

“If left unattended, they call into question  the integrity and credibility of the government and the use of state resources under the direction of or to the benefit of private interests,” said the ANC NEC statement, calling “for the establishment of a judicial commission of inquiry into allegations of state capture without delay”.

But as court processes, initiated by Zuma, are yet to unfold, Ramaphosa’s support in the House for a commission of inquiry, like the earlier ANC NEC statement, is little more than good political rhetoric. It amounts to artfully playing kick for touch. DM

Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing parliament in the National Assembly, Cape Town, 31 May 2017. (GCIS)