Robust Politics

2007-11-15 00:00

The political temperature is currently high in South Africa, largely because of the leadership issues in the African National Congress. These will dominate its national conference in Polokwane next month and they have also cast a spotlight on the next general election in 2009, with various political parties jockeying for positions among the electorate. Robust debate becomes an inevitable element in such a scenario and the current verbal conflict between Lionel Mtshali, leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party in this province, and S'bu Ndebele, the ANC's provincial leader and the premier, is a vivid illustration of this mood.

The issue for Mtshali is whether Ndebele is abusing his public position to pursue his private interests. He accuses the premier of taking advantage of the knowledge and influence he has in the arena of government to cultivate a number of personal business interests, from the accumulation of Nguni cattle to mushroom farming to acquiring a Rainbow Chicken franchise. Ndebele, in a strongly worded response, has denied any such connections or involvements and has threatened a defamation order against Mtshali. The premier has pointed out that the law requires all members of Parliament to declare openly any private interest or any gift received. Such declarations are intended as a safeguard against conflict of interest and his are open to public scrutiny.

Within this war of words seems to lie a particular difficulty within the ambit of the provincial department of agriculture from which largesse, in the form of gifts of Nguni cattle, was distributed to political heavyweights in the province some time ago. This became a matter for contentious debate in the provincial legislature. It emerged that the president of the IFP, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, refused to accept any gift of cattle on the grounds that it was a tainted gift. Ndebele insists that none of his cattle are linked to government.

Meanwhile, the director-general of the department at that time has fallen from grace and the minister himself, Gabriel Ndabandaba, has, for whatever reason, been shifted to another cabinet post. A forensic audit of the department has recently been completed but its contents have not been divulged on the grounds that it has been lodged with the Scorpions for possible investigation. Is this an excuse for procrastination or a genuine reason for delay?

It is important that this entire matter be brought openly into the public domain and taken beyond the level of insinuation by one political leader and angry rebuttal by another. Matters of principle are involved around the separation that is essential between a leader's public portfolio and his or her private interests.

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