Sense and Simelane

2009-12-01 00:00

IN the run-up to the April 2009 national elections, the African National Congress promised to pursue continuity and change. This suggested that while the general policy trajectory that was started under Nelson Mandela and consolidated under Thabo Mbeki would continue under Jacob Zuma, there would be areas of change. However, we were wrong to expect the change to be limited to matters of leadership style in the main. Clearly, Luthuli House is now in control and the ANC’s alliance­ partners have significant influence in how the ANC government runs.

Unless we understand this shift in the centre of power to Luthuli House, we will not fully appreciate how the Zuma administration has made some of its hard decisions, such as the appointment of Judge Sandile Ngcobo as the head of the constitutional court, Francois Beukman as the head of the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), Gill Marcus as the head of the Reserve Bank, Bheki Cele as the national police commissioner, Menzi Simelane as the national director of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and Charles Nqakula et al as facilitators of the peace process in Zimbabwe.

Most of these decisions have not caused much consternation, partly because Zuma has made a great effort to avoid obviously controversial choices. But the appointments of Cele and Simelane did generate a lot of criticism from the opposition, analysts and media columnists. Such criticism can easily be divided into politicking and genuine concerns about the personalities in question. Notwithstanding his sterling record as a safety and community liaison MEC in KwaZulu-Natal, Cele was opposed by those who feared that such an appointment would continue the politicisation of the police service. Liberals among us also disliked his tough-on-criminals stance, suspecting that it would undermine our human rights culture. After all, they believe even criminals have rights to be protected. To some, Cele’s diligence and frankness, coupled with the change of the name of the department back to the Department of Police, did restore public confidence in the crime-fighting force. After some time, the dust settled and we moved on.

Again, the appointment of Simelane last week took many by surprise. He was the last person on many observers’ minds. After all, many had celebrated his “demotion” from director-general of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to deputy national director of the NPA a couple of months ago. Indeed, his name had been badly muddied by the scathing comments by Frene Ginwala, the head of the Ginwala Commission that probed circumstances around the suspension of Vusi Pikoli. The commission found his role in the Pikoli saga highly suspicious and his conduct during the commission’s inquiry disturbing. These comments and Simelane’s conduct became the centre of debates regarding the Ginwala Commission’s findings. In the process, more was said about Simelane’s suitability to hold his office than could be found in the actual commission report.

It was hard to understand the appointment because we have long ruled Simelane too controversial to hold any public office of significance. This is not because he is not well qualified or incompetent, but because of public perceptions of him arising from a commission of inquiry that was not set up to investigate him. This is not to say that the president should ignore perceptions and controversies when considering candidates for positions of public office. In fact, decisions on senior positions in government are by their nature political. It is commonly accepted that presidents should appoint men and women they can trust. This goes beyond technical qualifications. It should be considered whether these individuals are able to build public trust in the institution in question.

For this reason, it is wise for the president to go for candidates that will not drag the name of precious institutions such as the NPA through the mud. Such candidates would have a balance of strong expertise, a suitable personality and a measure of public trust. This does not mean that they should be saints or should not have courted controversy before. But they should not be prone to causing controversy once they are in the positions in question. Such a judgment can only be made wisely if the president is well informed about the personality of the candidate in order for him to determine that the controversies in the past were not inherently part of the character of the person.

Whether the president made the right appointments, both with controversial and well-received choices, depends on considerations made behind closed doors and a well of information presented to him. We do not have access to this kind of information. This means we will better judge this in hindsight. Our fears and perceptions may be confirmed or proven wrong. For this reason, it is wise for us to be circumspect in our assessment­ of these appointments. True to the conventions of our profession, we analysts ought to deliberate the facts and con­sider all angles before we pass judgement.

It disappoints to see analysts rushing to conclusions before giving audiences an opportunity to see the many sides of an issue. I am excited when politicians do that because they are involved in a power struggle. They are not obliged to tell the whole truth in the process. They can peddle half-truths to win the minds and hearts of voting citizens. They can twist the truth when they find it. This idea of governing party versus opposition parties perpetuates this desperate quest for quick wins through propaganda about the other side. The media is a primary platform for these power games.

Analysts play a useful role when they provide objective and dispassionate assessment of issues at hand in order to help detoxify the public discourse. Otherwise, those who consume the messages will be left to the whims of players in the power game. Many will hate public figures when told to and love them when persuaded to. We, too, need some continuity and change. We can do our bit to realise some significant change in the consolidation of our democracy. We should nuance our analysis of the emerging trends under the Zuma­ administration in order both to inform and express an opinion about it. The administration’s recent appointments require such assessment. We will leave quick judgments to politicians and comedians­.


• Siphamandla Zondi works for the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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