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29 April 2017 21:41 (South Africa)
Opinionista John Matisonn

This Bitch is in Heat again

  • John Matisonn
    John-Matisonn.jpg
    John Matisonn

    John Matisonn began political reporting at the Rand Daily Mail in 1974, and received a prison sentence for refusing to divulge his source in a report about the South African Watergate scandal known as Muldergate. A foreign correspondent in Washington for the Rand Daily Mail and back in Johannesburg for National Public Radio, he has been published in the New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post and The Observer. After four years as a broadcast regulator in the Mandela administration and two as editorial director of the short-lived THISDAY newspaper, he became the United Nations’ Chairperson of the Electoral Media Commission in Afghanistan. He returned from a second tour in Afghanistan to write God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, which has just been published.

As a member of The Gathering audience which spontaneously applauded Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan as he fought back tears last Friday, memories of a false accusation as payback for fighting corruption inside government flashed before me. Nothing prepares you for it. The trouble is, those who care about their reputation for honesty feel the pain more acutely than those who care more about the money.

The pattern was set in the 1990s: you cover up corruption to protect the guilty. The way you do it is to throw a false allegation against the accuser. Then, while the accuser is trying to shake the dust from their eyes, you bait and switch the accused. By the time the media move on to a new scandal, the accused are in new, ever higher positions.

My experience was as a councillor of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, protected under Chapter Nine of the Constitution, as the Public Protector is. It took more than a decade before I could write about it in my book with some distance and perspective. The sleepless nights lasted for years.

It was the first big public scandal of the democratic government, and it charted the way for scandals to come. What was tried on me was textbook, the same experienced now by Gordhan and whistle-blowers or corruption-fighters in SARS, the Hawks, the NPA, and some parastatals.

Once identified as opposing corruption, they invented an accusation against me – that I had done what they had done. They had to find “evidence”, and in my case it required them to “disappear” the file on my recorded expenses in the accounting department. Then they found an amount they said was unaccounted for.

The origin was a good deed – when our office had failed to arrange an Australian engineering consultant’s return ride to the airport, I volunteered. When I got to his hotel, he was in a fix – our finance department had failed to pay for his room. I paid, took him to the airport, and filed the claim Monday morning. It was in the disappeared file.

I went back to the hotel and obtained a copy of the invoice, and hired an accountant to help me reconstitute all my expense claims. I kept a copy at home, one at the office and hid a spare.

The dramatic climax came in parliament’s Select Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA), when I presented my files and evidence of malfeasance, supported by the black staff association. Three of my fellow councillors, two from the new ANC era, one from the apartheid one, were sternly rebuked by ANC and opposition MPs alike and forced to resign. (Those were the days...)

But the ANC would not let them be tainted alone. They demanded that all resign, innocent and guilty, obviously to muddy the role of the high-profile guilty. As councillors of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (now ICASA) our positions were protected by Chapter Nine of the Constitution. I refused. It ended my career in government. Last year, 18 years later, I wrote about in my book:

As I have thought about the incident… the magnitude of what happened has increased. At the time I felt alone, isolated and vulnerable. I felt more stressed than I had in the bad old days, interrogated on the tenth floor of John Vorster Square or during short sojourns in prison. This time, it was the people I trusted doing this…

“… It was a first confirmation that those now in charge of the ANC did not accept the independence guarantee of Chapter Nine of the Constitution in good faith...

Nothing is a worse violation of constitutional protection than applying political pressure to force the resignation of a Chapter Nine appointee” (outside of a formal process based on cause).

Those who resigned who were implicated were not rehired at the IBA; they did much better. Under Communications Minister Dr Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, one became CEO of a parastatal, one South Africa’s Geneva representative at the International Telecommunications Union, and a third, who was a white with close previous ties to the apartheid government, was appointed CEO of a state institution.

Is it the unavoidable culture of exile politics, or was it implanted by Jacob Zuma? Was it earlier, under Thabo Mbeki, or even Nelson Mandela? My experience was while Mandela was still president, the one that ended my role in government, but all the signs were that the driver was Thabo Mbeki, to whom he had ceded control of most aspects of government.

Mbeki allowed these inroads into constitutionally mandated independence. Zuma took those inroads to a logical conclusion because his motives were worse.

I did not mind leaving government because my prime career was political journalism. I had been barred from Parliament in the apartheid era after Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger declared me a security risk. Soon after entering the press gallery, the corrupt arms deal dominated our time.

Andrew Feinstein was one of the ANC MPs in Scopa when the IBA appeared there. Now he headed the ANC team in Scopa, and so he was next for the high jump. A well-qualified economist, Feinstein showed the research proving offsets – the promise by the arms seller to provide new industry in return for the business – are notoriously abused by arms manufacturers.

He also showed that much of what was bought would not be used. Existing jets, with several years’ life left in them, lacked pilots and were stored.

This week Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula admitted that 13 of the 26 Gripen jets purchased in the arms deal – half – were in storage! They were in the “rotational preventive maintenance programme due to lack of funding”, she said in a parliamentary reply.

Back in the early 2000s, the Auditor-General and Public Protector, both Chapter Nine appointments, were compromised during the arms deal saga. The pattern from the IBA saga was repeated.

To clean up Scopa, meaning to stop it uncovering corruption, former Afrikaner Nationalist MPs aligned with ANC MPs to end proper investigation. Feinstein moved to London to write After the Party, chronicling his disillusionment at the cover-up.

Once he published, so many people contacted him about corrupt arms deals elsewhere that he realised something was missing: no book on the global arms deal had come out since The Arms Bazaar in 1979, by Anthony Sampson, the British journalist with strong South African connections as editor of Drum in the 1950s.

Feinstein sat down and wrote Shadow World, Inside the global arms trade. It’s a hefty book, with 3,000 footnotes to prevent lawsuits, well written but not light fare. He then collaborated with the brilliant director Johan Grimonprez, who produced a riveting documentary in a style that draws attention at movie festivals, and is scheduled for cinema releases a la Michael Moore. It will be in the running for an Oscar.

Andrew and I caught up this week, 15 years after we both left parliament bruised. I interviewed him on my new show, BETWEEN THE LINES. The interview will air tonight (Thursday 16 June 2016) at 21:00 on DSTV 263 and CTV, repeated Sunday at 19:30 on the same channels.

Maybe there are lessons. I have an idea how Pravin Gordhan felt on that stage at The Gathering, when he responded to Ranjeni Munusamy’s question about the impact of the ongoing threat of his arrest.

I have never stolen a cent of state money,” he said, quivering, “and nor have my colleagues who are also accused.” He slowly regained his composure amid the long and warm applause.

The method is established. Don’t be surprised when next you see it. This bitch is in heat again. DM

John Matisonn is the author of GOD, SPIES AND LIES, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, and host of the weekly BETWEEN THE LINES interview programme.

  • John Matisonn
    John-Matisonn.jpg
    John Matisonn

    John Matisonn began political reporting at the Rand Daily Mail in 1974, and received a prison sentence for refusing to divulge his source in a report about the South African Watergate scandal known as Muldergate. A foreign correspondent in Washington for the Rand Daily Mail and back in Johannesburg for National Public Radio, he has been published in the New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post and The Observer. After four years as a broadcast regulator in the Mandela administration and two as editorial director of the short-lived THISDAY newspaper, he became the United Nations’ Chairperson of the Electoral Media Commission in Afghanistan. He returned from a second tour in Afghanistan to write God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, which has just been published.

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