Pansy Tlakula: No longer easy to love

2014-06-25 13:18

“Kwaze kwalul’ ukukuthanda. You’re so easy to love”, go the lyrics of Bucie’s catchy chart-topping song.

These lyrics could just as well apply to Pansy Tlakula, the endearing chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). She is truly easy to love. She has a large personality and exudes natural warmth. Her full smile and laugh are welcoming.

But it is not just because of her personable self that she is easy to love. It is also because she is easy to trust and easy to respect. These two qualities were not bequeathed her through the genes of her forbearers or the environment she grew up in. She worked hard to earn trust and respect in South Africa and beyond our borders. By the time she rose to be chief electoral officer and later chairperson of the IEC she already had a reputation as an upstanding South African.

It is a reputation earned through decades of activism and taking principled positions on human rights, gender and poverty issues. During her tenure as the institution’s CEO, her partnership with former chairperson Brigalia Bam was a formidable one. Building on the foundation laid by previous chair Judge Johann Kriegler and CEO Mandla Mchunu, they cemented the institution’s credibility and operational smoothness.

Given the great work she has done – for which she has deservedly received accolades – it is difficult to reconcile this idea of her with the harsh findings against her by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, a Treasury-commissioned PwC investigation and the Electoral Court.

Madonsela last year found that Tlakula’s conduct with regard to the R320 million lease deal for its Centurion offices had been “irregular” and had violated procurement rules.

“Tlakula’s actions risk a loss of public confidence in the IEC and also threaten the IEC’s reputation as an impartial constitutional body,” she said in her report, which also recommended that Parliament sanction the IEC chair.

Tlakula violently rejected Madonsela’s findings.

In March this year, PwC’s forensic report cited many instances in which the bidding process appeared to have been manipulated, backing up the Public Protector’s report.

It said Tlakula and several of her senior managers “should each be held responsible for the roles they played that resulted in a procurement process being followed that was not fair, equitable, transparent, competitive or cost effective.”

Her response to this report was that “it does not make a finding of corruption” against her or her staff.

But it was the words Electoral Court Judge Lotter Wepener used to describe Tlakula’s behaviour last week that would have totally rattled anyone who swore by her integrity.

“A plethora of unlawful actions” was how he described her interventions during the processing of the deal. He said she had “wilfully flaunted legal prescripts”. These breaches were “unlawful”. Her conduct could have the effect of “impairing the public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the commission”.

“In my view, the respondent compromised the independence and integrity of the commission to such an extent her actions constitute misconduct within the meaning of the Electoral Commission Act,” said Wepener.

Then came the killer blow: “It is conduct that renders her unsuitable for the office of a commissioner and [is] destructive of the very values the commission.”

The use of words “unlawful”, “destructive” and “misconduct” in the context of a Pansy Tlakula is almost unthinkable.

Understandably, Tlakula is now waging the fight of her life to preserve her hitherto untarnished name.

A lot is at stake here. Just past her mid-50s, she still has verdant years ahead of her. There is still a lot to achieve here at home and abroad. But it is her hard-earned reputation that she is most desperate to preserve. The last thing she wants is to be forced to leave public life in ignominy.

She would also be of the view that she has foes in the IEC who are orchestrating her downfall and are therefore watching her current woes with glee.

Like Luis Suárez salivating at the thought of sinking his teeth into an opponent’s shoulder, they are waiting to feast on her vulnerable flesh, she believes.

So she has resolved to fight with the tenacity of an insurgent on steroids. She is contesting the Public Protector’s findings in the high court and is seeking a Constitutional Court review of Wepener’s ruling. In waging this very public fight, she is dragging the IEC’s name through dung and dividing the organisation down the middle.

Tlakula is well within her rights to defend herself and could possibly come out tops in both challenges.

There is a danger here, though. Having been damned by three institutions, she runs the risk of being hammered by both the high court and the Constitutional Court. There is a very strong likelihood that these courts will add to the already colourful vocabulary used by the bodies that have already passed judgement on her. In which case she will then well and truly be a carcass and her perceived foes will not need to bite quite as hard as Suárez did.

Tlakula should look at the bigger picture and consider the casualties of this saga: the unity of the IEC, the integrity of the commission and the credibility of South Africa’s electoral system. She must also think about the one casualty she is most eager to avoid: the reputation of Advocate Pansy Tlakula.

Should the outcome of her appeal processes be unfavourable and confirm her breaches, violations, misconduct and unlawful behaviour, then she will no longer be so easy to love. She will just be easy to feel pity for. It will be easy to feel regret that someone so wise could not admit to a mistake and seek forgiveness from a society that trusted her so deeply.

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