The flesh is weak and the spirit flagging

2011-03-19 00:00

NOT a week passes without some African National Congress luminary of manifestly pure heart and clear conscience promising in soulful soliloquy to the news cameras that the government will not tolerate malfeasance an instant longer.

But, when there is misconduct, it is a case not only of the flesh being weak but the spirit flagging. ANC MP Jonas Sibanyoni provides an instructive little vignette.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela last week briefed a special session of the Justice and Constitutional Development Committee, of which Sibanyoni is a member. She described the illegal raid by senior cops who tried to browbeat her staff into handing over documents relating to the Protector's investigation into a R500-million police tender scandal. The ANC committee members generally found the raid a bit of a giggle. Sibanyoni was particularly patronising and dismissive when Madonsela said her staff had felt intimidated and remained frightened and uncertain.

The Protector's staff could only have felt traumatised, Sibanyoni said, "because they were still thinking of apartheid, when police instilled fear in people".

It seemed odd that Sibanyoni, who is a lawyer and is on the coveted Justice and Constitutional Development Committee, was so cavalier about the raid and its implications. Google provided a putative answer: in 2008 the previous Public Protector investigated Sibanyoni and recommended that Parliament address his improper conduct in soliciting an unlawful and irregular donation from Kungwini Municipality for his constituency office.

Admittedly, the sum, R25 856, is small beer by South African standards of impropriety. Nevertheless, it is an embarrassment for a lawyer one would think. The Speaker was to implement the Protector's ruling and take steps to ensure that no MP committed the same transgression in future. One might then expect at least a slap on Sibanyoni's wrist and some career slippage for him; and maybe also a short course for MPs on the differences between private, party and public funds. But the Speaker did nothing. The matter "slipped between the cracks," says an official, and Sibanyoni didn't jog anyone's memory.

Democratic Alliance shadow minister Willem Doman, who made the complaint, also did nothing. The Protector did nothing. No one in the Protector's office checks whether rulings are obeyed. The Gauteng ANC did nothing. Sibanyoni ranked high on its 2009 election slate.

The ANC parliamentary caucus did nothing. Upon re-election, Sibanyoni was placed on the Justice and Constitutional Development Committee. Extraordinarily, he also served on the selection committee for the new Public Protector. Most bizarrely, he is the ANC-appointed co-chair for the committee that is compiling an ethics code for High Court judges. When it's about conduct unbecoming, Sibanyoni's the go-to man. No complaint was received so the Gauteng Law Society did nothing.

The media did nothing. A piffling R25 k of misspent public funds is hardly worth diarising for follow-up in a harried newsroom which, in any given week, is trying to track stories involving hundreds of millions of rands.

The poor Kungwini Municipality whose ratepayers' money it was, acted, in a fashion. The Protector had ordered that Kungwini, which serves the underdeveloped area around Bronkhorstpruit, discipline those involved and recover the funds. An official was given a final warning. Kungwini does not know if the money was repaid. The mayor involved, Obed Maila, resigned following an unrelated forensic investigation that uncovered fraud, corruption, tender rigging and nepotism.

Simple events can illuminate big truths. At the kindest interpretation, Sibanyoni's little "impropriety" lays bare the administrative breakdown that seemingly bedevils every government good intention. At worst, it shows that not only are some parliamentarians ethically challenged, but also that no one is particularly perturbed by this.

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