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23 March 2017 12:21 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

Nkandla report in court: Zuma's interest above the law

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

News that the security cluster of ministers is to approach a High Court to review and set aside the public protector’s report on Nkandla does not come as a surprise. While it is difficult to see any plausible legal justification for the review, such a review will tie up the report in the courts for a year or two and will allow attention to be diverted away from the damning findings made in the report against President Jacob Zuma – at least for the foreseeable future.

According to acting government spokesperson Phumla Williams, the government is seeking a review of the public protector’s Nkandla report “to seek clarity” from the court on aspects of the report. In an interview on SAFM Ms Williams explained that the government had asked the public protector to discuss her report with them with a view to “clarify” it. As the public protector refused to revisit her final report, Ms Williams argued, it was hoped the court would provide the necessary “clarity”.

If this is indeed an aim of the government in having the public protector’s Nkandla report reviewed by a court, it demonstrates a worrying lack of basic knowledge of (and respect for) the Constitution and, most notably, for the independence of the public protector as guaranteed in section 181(2) of the Constitution.

As the Constitutional Court confirmed in at least two judgments, Chapter 9 institutions are not part of government and are thus outside of government and independent from it. Moreover, as stipulated in section 181(4) of the Constitution, no organ of state may interfere with the functioning of the public protector. As an ad hoc committee report of Parliament made clear, this means that neither parliament nor the executive could interfere with decisions taken by the public protector relating to a specific investigation.

An attempt to get the public protector to revisit a final report and to “clarify” aspects of it, constitutes a prima facie attempt to interfere with the independence of the public protector. If the public protector had indeed agreed to assist government to “clarify” aspects of her final report, she would have acted in a manner in breach of her constitutional duty to act independently and without fear, favour or prejudice.

For this reason, no judge in South Africa who is even vaguely familiar with the Constitution and the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court is ever going to agree to interfere with the findings made by an independent Chapter 9 institution by “clarifying” the Nkandla report.

It just ain’t gonna happen.

This does not mean that a report issued by the public protector cannot be reviewed by a court and set aside on the basis that its findings are irrational. If a court finds that no rational person could have made the findings contained in a report of the public protector (based on the facts exposed in the report), a court can set aside that report as invalid.

However, rationality is an extremely exacting standard to meet and it will only be in the most exceptional circumstances that a court will set aside the findings contained in a report of the public protector on the basis that these findings are irrational.

As the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) indicated in the judgment of Public Protector v Mail & Guardian a court will not direct the public protector as to the manner in which an investigation is to be conducted.

A proper investigation might take as many forms as there are proper investigators. It is for the Public Protector to decide what is appropriate to each case and not for this court to supplant that function.... It would be invidious for a court to mark the work of the Public Protector as if it was marking an academic essay.”

What is required, said the SCA, is that an investigation “must have been conducted with an open and enquiring mind” as an “investigation that is not conducted with an open and enquiring mind is no investigation at all”.

Rationality review does not allow the court to enquire into the correctness or the wisdom of the findings contained in a report. Even where the investigation and the findings of the public protector could be faulted or even where reasonable people could differ on whether the conclusions reached by the public protector in a report were correct, this will not render the report invalid.

However, where no rational person could possibly have made the findings contained in a report – based on the facts revealed in that report – a court would have a duty to set the report aside.

This means that it would not be sufficient for the security cluster ministers to point to contradictions between their own exculpatory report (in which they investigated and exonerated themselves) and the public protector’s report and then to argue that the findings in her report were irrational.

It is clear that the president and his security cluster ministers do not agree with some of the findings of the public protector’s report on Nkandla, are aggrieved that the latter report did not exonerate them all like their own report did, and prefer the findings of the government task team report. Who would not prefer a report conducted by your own underlings and exonerating you from any wrongdoing?

Unlike the ministerial task team who supposedly “investigated” the Nkandla scandal, the public protector is an independent constitutional body tasked with investigating such matters without fear, favour or prejudice. While the former report has no constitutional standing, the latter does. The former was not an independent investigation, the latter was. The former was more than 400 pages long; the latter was a slap-dash effort of less than 50 pages.

But legally this is not the crux of the matter. What is the crux of the matter is that no court in South Africa is going to review and set aside a report conducted by an independent constitutional body because it conflicts with a report drafted by the very people implicated in wrongdoing or by people whose bosses are implicated in wrongdoing.

For this reason I thank my lucky stars that I am not the lawyer tasked with trying to convince a court that the public protector’s report on Nkandla must be set aside because it is irrational. The potential embarrassment and humiliation facing that lawyer is not something that I would wish on my worst enemy.

Having said this, if I had to attack the public protector’s Nkandla report on the basis of irrationality, I would focus on the finding that the president never meant to lie to Parliament. The facts contained in the report clearly suggest otherwise.

Moreover, the president refused to provide the relevant answers and documents requested of him, as he is obliged to do by the Public Protector Act. Prima facie this refusal to co-operate to provide the public protector with the answers that could have proven that he did not lie to Parliament constitutes a criminal offense.

The most plausible interpretation of he facts contained in the report suggest that the president did indeed lie to Parliament in breach of the Executive Members Ethics Code and then refused to co-operate with the public protector to cover up this lie.

The finding that the president did not lie to Parliament was therefore, in my opinion, clearly wrong. Whether it was irrational, thus rendering the report invalid is another matter.

Ms Williams also made another, to my mind, bizarre statement today. “It is the ministers’ view that the public protector’s report and the investigation she conducted trespass on the separation of powers doctrine and... section 198(d) of the Constitution which vests national security in Parliament and [the] national executive,” she said.

This argument is, quite frankly, a legal nonsense. I cannot imagine that any lawyer vetted it.

First section 182 of the Constitution states that the public protector has the power, as regulated by national legislation, to investigate any conduct in state affairs, or in the public administration in any sphere of government, that is alleged or suspected to be improper or to result in any impropriety or prejudice”. The only matter which the Constitution prohibits the public protector from investigating is court decision.

Moreover, the Public Protector Act makes it clear that while the functions of the public protector include those that are ordinarily associated with an ombudsman, he or she may investigate, amongst other things, any alleged improper or dishonest conduct with respect to public money, any alleged offence created by specified sections of the corruption legislation with respect to public money, and any alleged improper or unlawful receipt of improper advantage by a person as a result of conduct by various public entities or functionaries. This includes, of course, the president, which, it may surprise the security cluster Ministers to hear, is not above the law.

Secondly, section 198(d) of the Constitution states that: “National security is subject to the authority of Parliament and the national executive.” It affirms that issues of national security cannot be exempted from civilian oversight. Parliament and the national executive have the final authority to direct decisions about national security, but nothing in the section excludes the public protector from investigating matters alleged to be related to national security.

To hold otherwise would be to argue that the president and his government is above the law as long as they claim an issue relates to national security. The argument is one in favour of impunity and lawlessness.

Third, in his reply to the National Assembly in which he responded to the findings of the public protector, the president stated that: “The Security Cluster Ministers, the SIU and the Public Protector all have a constitutional and a legislative mandate to conduct their respective investigations”.

The president has therefore already acknowledged that the public protector was empowered to investigate the matter, despite allegations that it relates to “national security”. The statement today thus directly contradicts the president’s previous acknowledgement that the public protector has the legal mandate to investigate the Nkandla matter.

For these reasons it is difficult to see how the decision to ask the court to review the Nkandla report can be based on any legal considerations. This is therefore almost certainly not a decision based on law, but instead a decision based on what is in the best interest of President Zuma. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

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