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Ideological posturing: The lessons of Nkandla and the arms deal


Marianne Merten has written on Parliament since 2016 for Daily Maverick. The intersection of governance, policy and politics unfolds at many levels, from tiny nuggets of information hidden in the voluminous stacks of papers tabled at the national legislature to the odd temper tantrum by a politician. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes baffling, even after 26 years as a hack, there are few dull days in the parliamentary corridors.

The governing ANC seems stuck in an ideological rut, and unable to transcend factional fault lines, risking in this Public Protector saga to repeat the manoeuvrings of the arms deal saga and the Nkandla saga.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The so-called DA motion against the Public Protector, as the ideological posturing of the radical economic transformation (RET) grouping goes, has backed the ANC into a corner.

Even as an independent expert panel found Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane had a case to answer for sustained incompetence and misconduct, the RET promoters vowed never to support a DA motion.

Ultimately, this posturing did not carry the day in Tuesday’s vote as the House – with 275 for, 40 against and one abstention – supported the establishment of a committee to inquire into Mkhwebane’s possible removal.

But the ANC factional agitation is by no means done. Even as, ironically, by arguing the ANC could never support a DA motion, it plays straight into the DA’s gallery.

Back in August 2016, Judge Siraj Desai was the preferred candidate of the ANC and other parties, but not the DA’s. In 2002, Desai headed a commission of inquiry that dealt, among others, with the DA’s own political funding debacle. German fugitive Jürgen Harksen had handed envelopes to former finance MEC Leon Markovitz, and had money talks with then premier Gerald Morkel.

The DA rejected the Desai commission’s unflattering findings, claiming it was a political weapon by then premier Peter Marais, central to the turbulent days of the merger of the New National Party and the Democratic Party into the Democratic Alliance, followed by acrimonious splintering.

In August 2016, the DA got its way – Desai was ditched. After some behind-the-scenes haggling with the ANC, the EFF successfully lobbied for Mkhwebane despite its publicly stated concern she might be a Jacob “Zuma candidate”.

How the ANC conducts itself during the inquiry into Mkhwebane’s possible removal from office remains to be seen.

But in the Nkandla saga, the ANC used its numbers in the House to absolve Zuma of any repayments on those non-security upgrades, such as the swimming pool, cattle kraal and chicken run, after two ad hoc committees over two years.

Parliament, the place where the Constitution was made, in March 2016 was found by the Constitutional Court to have acted in a manner “inconsistent with the Constitution” for replacing then Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s remedial action requiring repayments by absolving Zuma of any responsibility.

Back in early 2001, ANC machinations relegated the November 2000 call by Parliament’s public spending watchdog, the Standing Committee on Accounts (Scopa), for a multidisciplinary investigation including the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) into the arms deal and its ballooning costs.

ANC heavyweights were brought out to check the Scopa initiative. In Parliament the governing party removed Andrew Feinstein as its Scopa representative in late January 2001 (in August that year, he resigned, disillusioned) and in February 2002 Scopa chairperson Inkatha MP Gavin Woods resigned in the face of growing ANC hostility. Scopa was left broken.

After then president Thabo Mbeki refused the SIU’s request for a presidential proclamation to investigate the arms deal, by November 2001 government was effectively cleared of wrongdoing in a probe by prosecutions boss Bulelani Ngcuka, Auditor-General Shauket Fakie and Public Protector Selby Baqwa.

The arms saga had many more twists and turns, including the 2011 commission of inquiry, which again found no wrongdoing.

Still, ANC internal dynamics and factional jockeying have fractured institutions central to South Africa’s constitutional democracy.

Of course, the current RET claim that the ANC never supports an opposition motion or idea is nonsense. Just one example is the ANC backing the EFF February 2018 motion for a constitutional amendment for expropriation without compensation. The process that unfolded remains unfinished.

A historical memory doesn’t serve anyone. Neither does ideological posturing. The ANC should do what governing parties elsewhere do – make even an opposition idea or motion its own, if that works best for South Africa. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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  • Bee Man says:

    The last statement in the article says it all. This will never happen with the current bunch of leaders in the ANC. The next generation hopefully will be somewhat better should they eventually step up

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      The ‘next generation’ without integrity and the corrosive lust for power, would be like trying to steer a rudderless ship. It would be the equivalent of the Madiba ‘generation’ which was replaced by bureaucrats and self-appointed ‘know alls’ without the skills of self-reflection and analysis!

    • Carsten Rasch says:

      My hope is that the “next generation” learn some lessons in the official opposition benches.

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