The latest shuffling of ministers reflects the self-interest that is President Jacob Zuma’s primary consideration, outweighing the public good.
What is to be made of Mkuseli Apleni’s retention as director-general (DG) of the home affairs department? Even though Apleni won the case against his suspension by then minister Hlengiwe Mkhize, President Jacob Zuma could have relocated him to some obscure department, especially if he believed his minister’s allegation against him. Mkhize had suspended Apleni, for alleged insubordination and incompetence. The court ruled that ministers don’t have powers to suspend or fire DGs, those powers resting with the president.
The ruling aside, Apleni’s suspension surprised many. He had served under four ministers in the department – Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Naledi Pandor, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and Malusi Gigaba – none of whom expressed disapproval of his conduct. That’s because Apleni has been one of the best bureaucrats, overseeing a dramatic turnaround at the department. Being at home affairs offices today is no longer a nightmare and applications for official documents are processed a lot quicker than previously. Hence Apleni’s contract being renewed for another five years in April 2015.
His continued stay at the department is obviously based on merit. It even appears that Zuma thinks so highly of Apleni that he moved his irritant, Mkhize, to the higher education and training ministry. It is rare for Zuma to reward excellence. How does one then explain this anomaly? Or is it an anomaly at all?
Retaining a diligent bureaucrat such as Apleni is commendable, but potentially misleading when examined in isolation. When examining this saga in its entirety, one sees that Apleni’s retention doesn’t detract from the neopatrimonial (or personalised) nature of Zuma’s presidency. The clue lies in how Zuma has handled Mkhize, especially in light of Apleni’s damaging allegations against her. They have a bearing on her competence and suggest that she’s possibly dodgy.
For starters, Mkhize had accused Apleni of failure to organise regular meetings with senior staff and settle legal disputes private companies had brought against the department. Apleni’s responses, submitted in an affidavit to court, are revealing. For instance, of the seven biweekly meetings that were scheduled since Mkhize joined the department in April, she only attended two. The rest were cancelled at her instruction. Nor did Mkhize attend any of the two quarterly meetings that had been convened since her appointment. In another instance, Mkhize set her first one-on-one meeting with Apleni for 06:30, only to cancel it as he was arriving at the venue. This could only mean that it is Mkhize who is disorganised.
As for her allegation that Apleni failed to settle legal disputes, Mkhize comes across as meddling in administrative matters and possibly guilty of nepotism. One dispute involves a company owned by the Oppenheimer family, Fireblade Aviation. The company took the department to court for refusing it, as Apleni puts it, “exclusive use of a section of the airport for themselves and those who are approved by them on the basis that they are ‘very, very important persons’”.
“The implication of granting this application for the department is that it would have to make available its own staff, relating to immigration and customs … to the service of Fireblade, to the exclusion of other users and customers.”
Apleni found this unconstitutional, especially because it would happen without a competitive bidding process. Whereas her predecessor shared Apleni’s views, Mkhize disagreed and, according to Apleni, went to see representatives of Fireblade without him in order to negotiate a deal.
Another legal dispute that Mkhize alleges Apleni defied her on involves Atlantis Corporate Travel. Mkhize’s son, Sizwe, is associated with the company, which has taken the department to court, claiming it’s owed about R1m. The department disputes the claim. Sizwe resorted to asking his mother to intervene on the company’s behalf. In a letter to the department, Sizwe tells officials that he’s spoken to his mother about settling the supposed debt: “Writing to you in regard with issue of department of home affairs owing Atlantis Corporate Travel close to R1 million for travel services dating back to 2014.
“I do believe that you had received all documentation sent by Nelisiwe Luthuli this past Monday. I forwarded information to my mother Minister Mkhize, but don’t want to keep bothering her with this matter ... At this point my superiors just wanted to check if there’s anything that can be done to solving matter without having to go to court, even though legal process has just started (sic).”
Mkhize’s accusations, therefore, were simply a ruse. The real reason for them, Apleni believes, was to get him out so that she could have her way. This included getting the department to pay her son. The court revealed Mkhize to be exactly what she had accused Apleni of being: inefficient and possibly unscrupulous.
This brings us to the question about Zuma. Why did he retain Mkhize as minister, especially in a critical department like higher education, at such a delicate moment for our universities? By the way, Zuma knew of Mkhize’s ineptitude long before Apleni’s revelations in court. She impressed none of the ministers she deputised to and her deputy at home affairs was reportedly beginning to complain about her incompetence.
The answer to why Zuma retained Mkhize lies in what has been happening in higher education. He wanted sole control over decision making in order to institute a no-fees policy at universities. Because Mkhize is indebted to him for remaining in Cabinet – although her record doesn’t warrant it – Zuma knew that she would be pliant to his dictates. He even replaced her (and her DG) with 28-year-old Morris Masutha, to make the decision.
Masutha briefed Cabinet and ANC leaders to try to get them to agree to a no-fees policy, without saying where universities would get the money from. Ministers and leaders of a liberation movement were forced to listen to this young lad, even though he had neither the qualifications nor the experience in higher education. The only qualification for assuming that role was that he dated Zuma’s daughter. He was a potential mkhwenyana (husband). That was enough for Zuma to entrust him with the future of our education system and risk wrecking our already precarious public purse. Personal relations trumped merit.
This explains the present saga around State Security Minister Bongani Bongo, who’s embroiled in all manner of scandals. They range from accepting kickbacks while still a civil servant in Mpumalanga, to attempting to bribe a parliamentary lawyer involved in the inquiry into corruption at Eskom. Bongo wanted to stop the probe. Such machinations are synonymous with gangsters, not ministers of state. A background check on Bongo, as ought to be carried out before any ministerial appointment is made, should have disqualified him. It was either never done or Zuma didn’t care that Bongo was a dodgy character. His main consideration was that Bongo would act as his henchman. Stopping the Eskom investigation also benefits Zuma. He’s implicated in state capture. And, we don’t know what else Bongo has been doing since his appointment as chief of spies.
Self-interest remains Zuma’s primary consideration in decision making. It outweighs the public good. That’s why it’s difficult to fathom that he wouldn’t do anything necessary to sway the ANC’s elective outcome in his favour. It’s all about himself.
Ndletyana is an associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg
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