Zille’s spectacular own goal

2008-04-19 00:00

The Democratic Alliance is normally enthusiastic about independent commissions of inquiry. The party stridently demands a few each a year, most recently into the arms deal and into the performance of Eskom. This is commendable. Some political shenanigans can only be unravelled by an impartial public investigation headed by a judge, distinct from the sometimes half-hearted or cack-handed efforts of the police.

So it is with bafflement that one watches the DA — twisting and turning with the desperation of a buck trying to slip away from a predator — in its efforts to kybosh the Erasmus Commission’s inquiry into the murky world of Cape Town politics.

Nowhere is South African politics as dirty as in the Western Cape. The ANC seems open to any stratagem, fair or foul, to topple the DA-led coalition from control of Cape Town.

The ANC knows that if DA mayor Helen Zille’s administration thrives, it likely presages the ANC losing the province in the 2009 elections. One had a glimpse of this seedy world of spying, cheating, blackmailing and bribing when it emerged that the DA had secretly hired investigators into an opposition councillor’s alleged attempts to suborn DA coalition councillors. When this was seized upon by opponents as a scandal, Zille appointed a judicial inquiry, which cleared the DA of wrongdoing.

The chagrined ANC’s Western Cape government then tried repeatedly to appoint its own commission of inquiry, under Judge Nathan Erasmus, into claims of illegal spying and improper procurement procedures by the DA coalition. Zille thwarted these attempts by recourse to the courts for interdicts, claiming that the province was exceeding its jurisdiction by interfering in a city matter.

Zille’s other criticism is that the Erasmus Commission is an abuse of power and waste of taxpayer money, constituted for party political purposes to attack the DA.

To counter this, the ANC broadened the commission’s terms of reference to include actions by renegade councillor Badih Chaaban — the one whom the DA had investigated secretly — and into maladministration in DA-controlled George.

Again, this week, Zille brought the commission’s hearing to an abrupt end with a flurry of interdicts. She also launched an astonishing attack on Erasmus, stating, “some judges allow themselves to be abused and I am afraid Nathan Erasmus is one of them”.

What hypocrisy. The DA has been quick to condemn various ANC factions for their attacks on judicial integrity. Rightly so. To impugn the judiciary, without a shred of evidence, is to undermine our vulnerable young democracy.

Admittedly, the ANC wants the commission because it believes the findings will embarrass the DA. So what? That is the same reason why the DA argues so passionately for the commissions of inquiry that it demands — because it believes they will implicate ANC figures — and why the ANC argues that such inquiries are political ploys that waste taxpayer money.

Zille is making a political mistake that will cost the DA dearly. She is adjusting her principles in front of the very voters she promised she would run a clean and accountable administration. Zille is in danger of giving the impression that she is just another double-dealing, slimy politician, no different from the ANC bunch that the DA dislodged in Cape Town.

There is a principled solution. If the DA has evidence against Erasmus, present it. If it is unhappy about the terms of reference of the commission, argue for them to be broadened. In the meantime, the DA should prove its commitment to the rule of law by submitting to it.

Oh, and a grovelling apology to Erasmus wouldn’t come amiss.

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