Policegate: a sharp sense of déjà vu

2011-02-26 10:20

Not so long ago, there was a brave man who took on South Africa’s police chief because he believed the sheriff was corrupt.

The man thought that with truth on his side, he could take down the crooked cop. He was wrong.

The man would find out in a crude way that in a world of realpolitik, ­gallant ideals of justice for all and equality before the law played second fiddle to political expediency.

The man was ultimately vindicated when the police chief’s protectors could no longer fight against an avalanche of evidence.

But the price was painful and high: he lost his job to his blemished accuser and had to wrestle for his pieces of silver.

Listening to Public Protector Thuli Madonsela carefully delivering her brutal indictment of what went wrong with national police commissioner General Bheki Cele’s building deal this week, I cast my mind back to the start of the Jackie Selebi ­corruption probe.

Without suggesting for a moment that Cele is corrupt (Madonsela found he acted unlawfully and irregularly), I experienced a distinct sense of déjà vu as Madonsela was reading her perfectly crafted speech.

Here we were again, five years after our former police chief was ­implicated in wrongdoing, with ­another Policegate on our hands.

And I wondered: Will Madonsela live to fight another day, or is she on Vusi Pikoli Street?

Madonsela has been impressive since her appointment as public protector in October 2009.

Taking over from Lawrence Mushwana – who will unfortunately be remembered for his refusal to deal decisively with the ANC’s Oilgate scandal and for his ­R7-million golden handshake – was never going to be a breeze.

The public protector’s office had a terrible reputation for being unable and unwilling to deal with complex and sensitive matter, particularly when politicians were involved.

Madonsela’s task was a mammoth one: to restore the faith of the public and show them that she could be trusted to protect them and solve their problems.

Even before the Cele case she had successfully started this process by showing real interest in the concerns of all South Africans – irrespective of whether they were ordinary citizens struggling to get IDs, conservative politicians or senior advocates.

Madonsela has taken the home ­affairs department head-on regarding the slow delivery of ID documents and found President Jacob Zuma guilty in April last year for omitting to declare his financial interests to Parliament within 60 days of taking office.

But it is the Cele case that has presented Madonsela with possibly the biggest challenge of her career so far. Not only is she taking on the powerful chief of police, but also the president.

In Cele, Zuma had appointed a loyalist and friend as police chief.

They served together in the KwaZulu-Natal structures of the ANC for years and during Zuma’s darkest hour, when he was facing corruption charges, Cele was by his side in court.

Zuma knows and trusts Cele and removing him as police chief seems a very unlikely possibility.

Adding to the quagmire is the fact that the other man implicated in the dodgy deal, businessman Roux Shabangu, has long claimed he is a good friend of Zuma. The president is yet to deny this in public.

Madonsela’s trouble doesn’t end there.

In her report, she strongly suggests the president’s axing of former public works minister Geoff Doidge in October last year fits in the timeline of the dodgy building deal.

She emphasises Doidge’s actions to halt the deal after obtaining legal advice that said he should, and then elaborates how his successor, Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, almost immediately revalidated the transaction after being redeployed by Zuma.

She’s not saying it, but it’s not far-fetched to argue Madonsela is suggesting the president was somehow involved.

As a former activist, Madonsela understands politics and masterfully drafted her Cele address by quoting former president Nelson Mandela on the importance of democratic institutions, like hers, before she got into the gory details.

“An essential part of that constitutional architecture is those state institutions supporting democracy.

Among those are the public protector?... It was, to me, never reason for irritation but rather a source of comfort when these bodies were asked to adjudicate on actions of my government and the (president’s) office, and judge against (me),” she quoted Madiba as saying at a conference in 2000.

Zuma’s adoration of Mandela is well known and Madonsela’s message to the president was clear: act like your idol and see me as a “source of comfort”.

And in case Zuma forgot his own state of the nation address of three weeks ago, Madonsela reminded him that he mentioned the public protector as one of a few “well-established institutions that support democracy and protect the rights of citizens”.

This, said Madonsela, “further bolstered” her confidence in the “state’s ability and commitment to do the right thing”.

The “right thing”, in this context, would be the suspension of Cele and the cancellation of the R500-million lease agreement, pending an application to court to finally decide on the matter.

Madonsela has nailed her colours to the mast. It’s now up to the president to decide if he likes what he sees.


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