Solving what isn’t the problem

2016-02-05 10:59

One is tempted to hazard a guess that politics is by and large, a game of smoke and mirrors. It is characterised by the endless manufacturing of red herrings to deflect attention away from one’s failures and to diminish importance of the achievements of others. One of the seemingly unbreakable habits of political leadership in South Africa is the energetic solving of what isn’t the problem. This is usually intended to show that the leadership is “responsive”, “caring” and “engaged with the challenges at grassroots level”, to use political parlance.

When the now disgraced Bheki Cele was promoted from provincial politics in Kwazulu-Natal and thrust on to the national stage to assume the role of  national police commissioner, many hoped that the crime problem would be addressed with vigour and tact. Warnings to criminals were issued and the mood and morale of the SAPS rank and file was lifted as they were told to adopt the "stomach in, chest out" approach. Then he announced his first programme of action: the militarisation of ranks of the SAPS!  The problem, you see, was that a police service wasn’t as intimidating to criminals as a police force-or so the story goes. Titles such as “General” or “Major-general” were now supposed to scare all criminal organisations into hiding, fill the prisons and make petty criminals shake in their boots. What was to follow was a period of minor reductions in reported criminal activity and a rise in police brutality towards civilians. That era ended with a Public Protector report finding that a building lease deal signed by Cele was unlawful and his conduct in relation to it was improper.

The Public Protector issued her much-awaited report into the upgrades on President Zuma’s private Nkandla homestead during the month of March 2014. The report found that there was gross overspending and that non-security structures such as a chicken run, cattle kraal, visitor’s centre, amphitheatre, clinic, culvert and a swimming pool (later dubbed “firepool” by the hapless General Riah Phiyega) were built, all with taxpayer money. The Public Protector found that President Zuma “tacitly accepted the implementation of all measures at his residence and has unduly benefited from the enormous capital investment from the non-security installations” he was found also have “failed to apply his mind to the contents of the Declaration of his private residence as a National Key Point and specifically failed to implement security measures at own cost as directed by it”, amongst other damning findings.

What was the ANC and government’s response? Smoke: the Public Protector and her office were vilified by the likes of ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe. Madonsela was even referred to as CIA agent by deputy minister of defence Kebby Mphatsoe. Many other attacks, both overt and covert were launched and stinging diatribes were thrown her way. The cabinet responded by instituting a parallel investigation spearheaded by the ministers of police and public works; who’s much ridiculed outcomes included a “firepool” demonstration video presented by a nervous police minister Nhleko and a bold declaration alongside public works minister Nxesi that “the President is not at fault”. When it was parliament’s turn to respond, the ANC, primarily through Dr Mathole Motshekga and MP Cedric Frolick continued to rubbish the Public Protector report and proclaimed after a stage-managed visit to the homestead in Nkandla that “there is no luxury there”.

There was also time for what we can call “Mirrors”. In an attempt to shield the president from the consequences of his (non)actions, many scapegoats were found and threatened with court action and other forms of censure. These included architect Minenhle Makhanya, low level public works officials and the contractors Bonelele Construction as well as Michael and Pamela Mfeka’s Moneymine. Nothing has come from the threats and subsequent court case.

The opposition and general public response was to demand that President Zuma should comply with clauses 11.1.1& 11.1.2 of the “Secure in Comfort” report and “take steps, with the assistance of the National Treasury and the SAPS, to determine the reasonable cost of the measures implemented by the DPW at his private residence that do not relate to security….” and “pay a reasonable percentage of the cost of the measures”. After repeatedly refusing to accede to these demands and the disruptive “pay back the money” protests by the EFF in parliament, the EFF decided to approach the Constitutinal Court to force an outcome. They were joined by the DA, the Public Protector also applied to be part of these proceedings as they would give clarity on the extent of the Public Protectors powers. The presidency has since responded with a literal and figurative late-night settlement proposal, stating that President Zuma is now willing to pay back the money, but with new conditions. Unfortunately, his attempts were dismissed by the EFF and the DA as a ruse that still does not fully comply with the recommended remedial actions. A potentially damaging showdown in the Constitutional Court between the president and his opponents now seems inevitable.

Perhaps when the parties meet at the Constitutional Court to spar over the issue, we may get closer to solving the real problem. Till then, could we observe a moment of silence for the dignity of Thulas Nxesi, Nkosinathi Nhleko and Cedric Frolick? Their posturing, cinematography and oratory skills did little to deflect attention from the never-ending mystery regarding the whereabouts of the emperor’s clothes.

*Akani writes in his personal capacity.

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