“Where you could say there was fault, it was the delay,” President Cyril Ramaphosa told State Capture Commission chairperson Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo on day two of his testimony as ANC president.
“Initially there was inertia. That there was not much movement, we concede. When it was clear the evidence was just accumulated, the thinking was to investigate them through the law enforcement agencies… In the end, the parliamentary track was activated.”
And that presidential testimony about summed up the hiatus of governing ANC action from 2011 when Fikile Mbalula told the party’s National Executive Committee how the Guptas told him he’d be a minister – before he was appointed to head the sports portfolio – to 2013 when guests at the Gupta wedding landed at the Air Force Base Waterkloof. And also the March 2016 public statement by then deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas about how the Guptas had offered him the finance minister’s post and a R600-million bribe.
A shift seemed to come only after the #GuptaLeaks, a trove of thousands of emails providing proof of the influence of the Gupta family and its business associations on the government, the presidency and state-owned enterprises.
Zondo, in previous parliamentary oversight hearings, pointed out that had Parliament acted earlier than the June 2017 directive to four committees to start inquiries, State Capture damage may have been less. On Thursday, Zondo went back there.
“That seems to be a delay that is difficult to accept,” said the deputy chief justice. “I just think 2017 was too, too far and there seems to have been enough for ANC committees and Parliament [to probe]. And if they had done so it may well be some of the damage may have been prevented.”
Ramaphosa’s reply was to emphasise he was not there to make excuses or to defend the indefensible.
“I am also here to explain some of the lapses. What I can say, deputy chief justice, you are absolutely right in saying the delayed reaction was not a correct way to handle matters. And I will concede that.”
Previous testimony, again canvassed on Thursday, outlined how ANC MPs actively opposed opposition calls for investigations of State Capture claims, including DA MP Natasha Mazzone’s request to the public enterprises committee in early 2016 and the September 2016 motion in the House by then DA MP David Maynier for a full parliamentary investigation into the impact of the Guptas on government.
That motion was defeated in the House where the ANC proposed an alternative motion to refer such State Capture claims to the SAPS and other law enforcement agencies – in line with the governing party’s attitude of dismissing State Capture as “allegations”.
That attitude only changed amid the factional jockeying and leadership battles in the run-up to the December 2017 Nasrec national conference. Importantly, the political mood at the time fed into ANC contestation – scores of anti-Zuma street protests, vocal critique from veterans and stalwarts and a thrashing of the ANC at the 2016 local government polls.
Given the centrality of political parties in South Africa’s constitutional democracy, little was done in Parliament – where, since 1994, the ANC has held the majority – until the party changed its mind.
Like ANC Chairperson Gwede Mantashe earlier in April, Ramaphosa fell back on a systematic explanation of the centrality of the party in South Africa’s political system.
“Our political system granted by the Constitution is that of a party system… That is our system. They [MPs] don’t go represent themselves and their jacket,” said Ramaphosa, who described himself as “a party person”.
While the Constitution had introduced “schizophrenic type of relation” by having the political party system as legislators swear individual oaths of office to uphold and respect the Constitution, according to Ramaphosa, the political party remained foundational.
“Political parties, by their nature, have a herd mentality. Like cattle they move together as a herd. That being the case, we do say there is always an exception for one or two or few members of the herd to hold different views. But the general rule of thumb in a party system is [that] you go along with the party line.”
If there were a need for exceptions, it would be discussed in the party. “Then in the end the party leadership would say we’ll allow it,” said the ANC president.
Finish and klaar.
If Ramaphosa thought such sweeping statements in what’s been a rather jovial atmosphere at the State Capture hearings would be sufficient, he did not count on Zondo’s committed persistence.
On the president’s proclaimed support of political party versus constitutional duty, including holding a president to account through a vote of no-confidence, the deputy chief justice put his question plainly:
“If that is so, why do we need the constitutional provisions, if everything can be dictated by the majority party outside the Parliament?”
It was one of the few moments of superbly controlled optics and bonhomie that Ramaphosa found himself blethering.
Referencing “a collective of people” applying their minds and “checks and balances”, he argued it was important for the ANC to have taken the decision, despite the “very painful process”, to recall its presidents, Thabo Mbeki in September 2008 and Jacob Zuma in February 2018.
“If it had cascaded all the way through to Parliament, it would have divided the party down to the middle,” he said before going on to describe Parliament as a stop-gap for party-factional politics.
“When the wheels have come off in the party itself, you need the check and balance in the Constitution.”
And that had been a very real possibility in the turmoil of February 2018, after Ramaphosa’s narrow election as ANC president at Nasrec, when the party considered supporting an EFF no-confidence motion in Zuma should he not resign as South Africa’s president.
It did not come to that; Zuma resigned in a late-night Valentine’s Day address to the nation.
But the ANC’s use of Parliament not as the constitutional tool for oversight and accountability in the interests of the people of South Africa, but a more cynical instrument in factional politics, may well leave a bitter taste.
For Zondo, it remains to unpick the maelstrom of parliamentary oversight, legislators’ constitutional responsibilities and party politics – and how failures, or delays, affected State Capture.
“[The commission] would be failing in its duty if it didn’t look as deep as possible what are the things that made these things happen,” as the deputy chief justice put it. DM