Have the Cele generals told all?

2011-07-23 10:13

Public Protector Thuli ­Madonsela’s report on the dodgy deal that would have seen more than R1.7 billion going towards rent for office buildings, reveals the soft underbelly of our public service that has been covered in various media.

This paper has, along with many other commentators, argued that Minister of Public Works Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde and police chief Bheki Cele should be fired for their involvement in the ­wrongdoing relating to the dodgy deal.

Asking for the political scalps of these individuals seems a cosmetic change to a fundamental flaw.

The public protector found “it was evident throughout the ­investigation that a number of the ­officials interviewed expressed their ­reservations with the process followed by the SAPS to procure the lease. However, they were reluctant to raise their concerns with their superiors due the culture of the SAPS, in terms of which instructions are followed and not questioned.”

This is problematic. The generals in charge of procurement in the SAPS did as they were told, even though they knew it was illegal because the culture is one of not questioning authority.

If the generals did not know or did not care that section 199(6) of the ­Constitution specifically says “no member of any security service may obey a ­manifestly illegal order”, how can we trust that those who work under these senior officials know that the word of the ­general is not always final?

Do lieutenant generals Hamilton Hlela, Matthews Siwundla and Stefanus ­Terblanche suggest that they would have, for argument’s sake, mowed down drug dealers had they received such an order from Cele?

If the generals are to be believed, then we have a structural problem that cannot be cured by the removal of Cele. If the culture described by Madonsela persists, then nothing will stop those who have ­replaced the three generals – who have now quit – from doing the same the next time their new police chief asks them to commit another illegal act.

If the subtext is that Cele put so much pressure on these good men to see no way out other than quitting their jobs or taking early retirement, then he must ­account for a possible charge of ­constructive dismissal.

But to get there, we need to hear from the police generals what they say Cele had on them and what they did to try to free themselves from this hold.

The public works department’s director-general, Siviwe Dongwana, is a fine example of what I am asking for from the generals.

Dongwana meticulously recorded his opposition to what he thought was an illegal stance by his bosses.

His heroic effort to defend the taxpayer, even when faced with political power and rank, resulted in Mahlangu-Nkabinde ­suspending him in December last year on charges “related to, but not restricted to, insubordination, dereliction of duty, ­failure to discharge official duties and bringing the department into disrepute”.

The three SAPS generals remain some kind of modern-day heroes when, in their own version, they merely did as they were told. Something doesn’t smell right.

Just like the police, the public sector is awash with deployed cadres.

If the ­procurement officers at the SAPS ­blatantly ignored the law because they ­respected rank, or were afraid of the ­power and influence of their politically connected boss, nothing will stop any government functionary from using the same line when the public protector comes demanding answers for conduct.

It is insufficient to sack the big boss if the structure is such that it allows for a boss to break the law and also allows for that boss to simply quit as a result.

Cele must still account for his wrongs. But must others get away with their wrongs just because they are lucky to be charged alongside a man who is hated more than they are?

Justice is not served when we ­selectively prosecute and do so on the ­basis of who has a better public relations network.

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