Eusebius McKaiser

Ignorance, Mr President, is culpable

2013-01-29 09:00

Eusebius Mckaiser

Minister of Public Works, Thulas Nxesi, said some pretty incredible things on Talk Radio 702 last night. When I asked him whether the Task Team that had probed supply chain worries related to security and other upgrades at Nkandla had interviewed President Zuma, he was baffled. He told me that there is no reason why the Task Team should have interviewed Zuma and, so, they did not. He also confirmed to me that no other Public Works officials had briefed the President about spending related to Nkandla. The details of procurement, Nxesi insisted, did not concern Zuma. Let’s unpack this tissue of ridiculous assertions.

First, the tactic here is simple: insist that your political principal is wholly ignorant. There are two embarrassing consequences that follow. For one thing, how can Nxesi insist that Zuma knew nothing about the procurement processes if he tells us that he never even spoke to the president about the details of the project? Recall the minister only started working on these issues about a year ago, and unless he had a conversation with the president about the details of the Nkandla project preceding his arrival in this ministerial post, how can he know that Zuma knows nothing?

You cannot both admit you did not interview or discuss the details of the project with the president and simultaneously claim to know what the president does and does not know about the project.

The truth hurts

For another, minister Nxesi also told me last night that president Zuma had raised concerns about the project’s duration. When I asked if that led to a conversation in which - don't laugh - the president perhaps expressed anxiety about the money involved here, the minister helped me out by saying that "concerns" did not lead to any conversation about money that was earmarked for spending or money that had already been spent. This is troubling.

If the minister is telling the truth, the truth hurts his boss because it is proof that Zuma is not interested in the details of governance. How can I be concerned about the visible and endless expansion of my private residence but be disinterested in the obvious operational and financial issues that must be the reason for the delay?

Either Zuma asked more questions of the minister than we are told (in which case the minister is shielding him) or the minister told me the entire story and we have a president who lacks the ability or interest (or both) to ask the correct oversight questions from his ministers. In both scenarios you and I are the real losers.

Second, there is a wider issue here about what we ought to expect of the president. Assuming Zuma did not ask about the details of the project and was not voluntarily informed about the details by Nxesi, the Task Team or Public Works officials, does that mean the president can be let off the ethical hook? I think not.

Ignorance not an acceptable defence

The entire defence - "He knew nothing, Joe!" - assumes that ignorance is an excuse. Sometimes we have an ethical duty to know facts. Ignorance can be culpable in public leadership. This is one such instance. The project has been the subject of protracted public debate, media scrutiny and opposition critique.

The president can reasonably claim he does not know how much was spent on potholes in Upington. But to take a disinterest in the details of one of the most talked about political scandals of the last while is to be wilfully disinterested in a matter of obvious public interest. This is not an acceptable defence.

The president, and his side-kicks, should realise that it is profoundly embarrassing (to put it mildly) that he is ignorant of the facts. The bar for great public leadership must be set higher: you are expected to proactively find out, and act on, facts related to matters of public interest. Ignorance, Mr President, does not excuse.

Insist on accountable government

Finally, it was rather curious of minister Nxesi to insist that government has shown "transparency" on this matter in what he regards a world first: sharing details with society about security matters related to the president.

The press statement raised more questions than it answered. Non-security related operational expenses of R135m, for example, are not further broken down in the press statement. These expenses do not affect the security expenditure of R71m, so why can they not be shared with us given that this item of expenditure does not relate to Zuma's security?

Transparency means transparency, not randomly selecting a sprinkling of under-explained data. Besides, minister Nxesi also confirmed to me that procurement discussions started in 2009 but the Nkandla site was only declared a national key point in 2010. If so, how can pre-2010 facts be classified? These, and other, questions will not go away.

We owe it to ourselves to insist on responsive and accountable government. Let’s remain vigilant and active citizens.

- McKaiser’s book A Bantu in my Bathroom is now available from all leading bookstores. Ebooks can be bought from and epub and pdf versions can be bought on-line from Exclusives Books and

- Eusebius McKaiser is an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics. Follow @eusebius on Twitter.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    thulas nxesi  |  jacob zuma  |  nkandla upgrade

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