This week, South Africa’s chief justice and representatives of other Chapter 9 institutions are interviewing the men and women who have stepped forward to become the Independent Electoral Commission’s newest commissioners. At the first day of the hearings, two threads emerged: the number of candidates who are card-carrying members of the ANC, and the serious allegations hanging over the heads of a few of them.
You have to be a hardy soul to be prepared to undergo a job interview in front of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. On the first day of interviews to fill three vacant IEC commissioner positions, Mogoeng was resolute in leading candidates into the dark patches of their CVs.
Neither does he tolerate waffle in answers: anyone hoping to baffle the chief justice with bullshit will rapidly find the shoe on the other foot.
It became apparent early on that Mogoeng and his fellow panellists had engaged closely with the report on the IEC commissioner candidates prepared by NGOs the Council for the South African Constitution (CASAC) and My Vote Counts.
That report flagged a number of areas of concern about the background of the 26 candidates who are hoping to help run South Africa’s crucial 2019 general elections – ranging from the candidates having a declared allegiance to one political party, to having faced allegations of misconduct or corruption in the past.
It should go without saying that the officials at the top of the IEC have to be individuals of unimpeachable integrity. Yet of the 12 candidates who appeared before Mogoeng, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, Human Rights Commissioner Angie Makwela and the Commission for Gender Equality’s Tamara Mathebula, at least three have shadows dogging their past.
The first candidate to appear before the panel, businessman Alan Campbell, was implicated in a 2002 scandal involving an allegedly improperly awarded consulting contract with the then-bankrupt Premier Soccer League.
In response to questioning from Mogoeng, Campbell denied any wrongdoing, saying that the contract with the PSL that he and his partners were awarded did not have to be put out to tender.
“We submitted our invoice and some parts of the PSL were of the opinion the invoice was too high,” Campbell said.
Later in the day, the IEC’s former CEO Mosotho Moepya was interviewed. Moepya’s almost 20-year career with the IEC came to an end in 2017, following the release of a report by former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela in which Moepya was accused of concealing information regarding possible financial misconduct.
It did not take long for Mogoeng to broach the subject, in response to which Moepya displayed some bitterness.
“I have a track record with the Electoral Commission,” said Moepya. “It is not a mediocre track record. I have served my country, and further afield, with great distinction. I should not have been treated in the manner I have been treated.”
He denied all wrongdoing, and said he was prepared to depose an affidavit detailing exactly what happened to give rise to the misunderstanding regarding his propriety. Mogoeng agreed that would be helpful.
The last candidate of the day, former South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) CEO Lindiwe Mokate, also came in for a grilling about her professional history.
In 2016, a staff exodus from the SAHRC was blamed on Mokate’s autocratic and bullying manner, as well as a relationship with the ANC which was allegedly so cosy that she was accused of tampering with reports.
Mokate also denied any misconduct.
“By South African standards, I was a very strict CEO,” she said. “I made sure everything happens the way it’s supposed to happen.”
She suggested that perhaps it was this approach that was mistaken for bullying.
Mokate, Moepya and Campbell were not the only candidates made to sweat by the panel.
Professor Mzamo Gumbi was left scrambling for words after Mogoeng’s questioning revealed that he may have been untruthful while interviewing unsuccessfully for the same position in 2014.
In 2014, Gumbi had told the IEC selection panel: “I am not involved with any political party… You need a non-political person in order to deal with politicians efficiently.”
Yet on this occasion, Gumbi volunteered the information to the panel that he had been an ANC member “in good standing” since 1958.
Asked by Mogoeng to explain this discrepancy in his answers, Gumbi floundered.
“I am a member of a party but not an activist,” he said. “I perhaps didn’t clarify what I was saying.”
It had gone badly for Gumbi from the start. He began his interview by quipping that he felt like an old man going to negotiate for a much younger wife.
That attempt at humour did not land well with the Commission for Gender Equality’s Tamara Mathebula, who said it undermined the issues they are currently trying to tackle around sugar daddies and inter-generational relationships.
“I wish you could take back that comment,” Mathebula told Gumbi. “I cannot sit here as CGE and really take that.”
Gumbi initially looked set to make things worse, by responding: “I had a sense there would be a gender person here”, but clarified that his remark was “just a matter of humour”.
Some further awkwardness was ahead for another candidate, Advocate Edward Lambani, when Lambani refused to disclose whether he was affiliated to any political party.
“I haven’t found it necessary to say which political party I belong to. I stick to the secrecy of my vote,” said Lambani. But he confirmed he was a card-carrying member of one party.
Asked Mogoeng: “Is it not necessary to disclose which political party you are a member of when you apply to a position of high responsibility in an institution that deals with political parties?”
Yet Lambani would not be persuaded to reveal his party membership.
Of the 12 candidates interviewed on the first day, at least five either openly acknowledged current ANC membership or have previously served as ANC office-bearers – as was the case with former South African ambassador to Zambia Moses Chikane.
Despite being the most high-profile candidate shortlisted, Chikane vied with Gumbi for the title of “weakest interview performance”.
At one stage, Chikane segued into a strange tirade against foreigners, lashing out at “spaza shops run by gangsters from outside” and foreign pastors who make South Africans “drink Omo”.
But among the candidates there was also cause for hope for the selection panel.
The stand-out performance came from the IEC’s current deputy chief electoral officer Dr Nomsa Masuku, who gave a superbly assured interview which – in contrast to other candidates’ – was high on specific knowledge.
Masuku highlighted the IEC’s major challenges at the moment as consisting of outdated institutional hardware, the “shifting terrain of a maturing democracy”, budgetary constraints, increasing demands on staff and a general structure in need of rejuvenation.
Asked by Mogoeng if the IEC was alert to the possibility of cyber-attacks, Masuku confirmed: “People try to hit us quite often.”
She said, however, that their systems had thus far proved reasonably robust.
On the challenge of voter education, Masuku said that most South Africans were quite adept at ballot literacy.
The problem, she said, is that the IEC does not have enough resources “to mount a wall-to-wall campaign where people can link the act of casting their vote with everything that happens between elections”.
Masuku – who has never been a member of a political party – projected such competence that Mogoeng voiced concern about the wisdom of moving her from her current position within the IEC.
“You seem to be very strong at an operational level,” said the chief justice. “Is that not where you are needed?”
“I’m actually very strong at a strategy level,” Masuku fired back.
Interviews continue on Tuesday. DM
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