Nepotism: We’re missing the story

2014-08-06 13:45

Reporting on the affairs of the state ­ requires a set of skills shared with ­ reporting on political power.

How­ever, there are important differences in ­emphasis.

Where the latter requires an appetite for political intrigue and the contacts to find it, the former requires a deep understanding of the rules and laws governing the affairs of the state.

I thought about this distinction and how it is often ignored, or blurred, as I read ­reports about Thuthukile Zuma’s new job.

The youngest daughter of President Zuma and African Union chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, 25-year-old Thuthukile has landed a R1?million-a-year job as chief of staff to Telecommunications Minister Siyabonga Cwele. Before this appointment, she’d worked briefly as Cwele’s public liaison officer.

Predictably, news reports raised the possibility that nepotism could be at play. Thuthukile doesn’t have the minimum five years of experience in senior management that the post typically requires, so the suggestion is she got the job because she’s the president’s daughter.

That alone would probably be newsworthy enough for the journalist interested only in political power. The story plays into the narrative that proximity to President Zuma ­unlocks doors.

But there are two reasons I would ­expect more from a journalist whose interest is reporting on the affairs of the state.

The first is that nepotism is alleged to be rife in the public sector. Even Nelson Mandela’s presidency wasn’t immune.

The allegations became so frequent that the then Public Protector Selby Baqwa was prompted to issue a special report in which he concluded that all 20 ­instances referred to him were not in fact nepotism.

Baqwa pointed out then that even the mere allegation of nepotism, factual or not, tarnishes the reputation of the ­person appointed and erodes public trust in the institution.

Thus I would expect each report of an ­instance of nepotism in government to be accompanied by information on what in the measures meant to prevent it failed. This is the most important information the public should know.

Armed with this ­information, we can take concrete action to hold the state accountable. Anything short of this will probably only ­generate impotent outrage.

My second reason involves the measures themselves. They’re not arbitrary. They’re part of a system of legal and regulatory governance protocols that apply to public representatives and government departments.

For public representatives, codes of ethics prohibit members of the executive from ­using their position to enrich themselves or improperly benefit other people.

For government departments, the Public Finance Management Act requires that a set of checks and balances be in place to ensure risks like fraud and nepotism are managed. The act also empowers the Auditor-General to investigate and report on these checks and balances.

The case of Thuthukile Zuma is instructive in this regard.

The news reports, unfortunately, focused on her as the subject of the story, not the minister to whom the code of ethics applies.

The reports didn’t even consider that it would be a breach of the code Cwele swore to abide by if Thuthukile’s appointment is indeed ­nepotism.

In addition, the legally required checks and balances that are supposed to be in place over hiring practices at the department did not feature either.

Last year, the Auditor-General suggested that this department has not strictly enforced them. He also said its accounting ­officer did not always exercise the required oversight to ensure the department complied with laws and regulations.

This is the story missed in the reporting of Thuthukile’s appointment. A lot of it might have to do with poor understanding among journalists of the laws and regulations.

As a result, news stories end up over­emphasising political intrigue.

Over the long term, the reporting can make what are often problems of human behaviour appear ­intrinsic to a specific person, family, party or ethnicity – or even the public sector alone.

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