The age of impunity in SA

If there was a hashtag for this past week it would probably be #ageofimpunity.

How else can one describe Minister of Energy Tina Joemat-Pettersson presiding over the sale of oil reserves when the market was in what experts would call, ‘contango’, in other words, a time to buy and not to sell oil. At the time the oil reserves were sold off at $28 a barrel. In the meantime, the oil price has risen to $50 a barrel. So, who ever bought this oil locked into some pretty decent profits on the futures market on the day of this sale. Who benefitted from this action and why was Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan sidelined and the Public Finance Management Act breached? At the very least, it seems like an act of gross incompetence, or at worst, one smells a whiff of corruption.

In a further act of impunity, Defence Minister Noziviwe Mapisa-Nqakula appears to have ‘smuggled’ a woman into South Africa from the Democratic Republic of Congo on an official aircraft. The woman is reportedly the former girlfriend of Mapisa-Nqakula’s late son. The Democratic Alliance has called for the minister to be prosecuted for smuggling a foreign national into South Africa without the requisite documentation. The chutzpah is extraordinary.

After several denials, Mapisa-Nqakula admitted that she made a special trip from Waterkloof Air Force base to fetch the woman, yet she insists she did nothing wrong.

In the meantime SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who seems to have more than the proverbial nine lives, remains in his position despite a court order that set aside his appointment. That was in November 2015. The SABC’s latest application for leave to appeal was dismissed by the Western Cape High Court last week and yet the SABC will continue using public money to protect the unqualified, incompetent Motsoeneng. It now plans to petition the Supreme Court of Appeal for leave to appeal Judge Davis’ judgment.

Never a shrinking violet, Motsoeneng this week announced that the SABC 3 channel would henceforth have 80% local content. This hair-brained scheme seems to have come out of nowhere. It came in the same week that the SABC refused to air a DA election ad. The public broadcaster is now firmly in the grip of censorship, refusing to show visuals of protest action. As to the local content, who will provide it – 80% of it? And when viewership drops, as it inevitably will, advertisers will also take their money and run. How does the SABC plan to deal with those losses?

Well, they don’t have to. As Communications Minister Faith Muthambi is known to have said, “uBaba (Jacob Zuma) loves Hlaudi”. Enough said.

Not one of the individuals acting with such brazen disregard for the public interest needs to worry that much. uBaba will cover their backs. After all, this is what Zuma’s world looks like. It is a world where the Constitution is breached and there are no repercussions for the president himself.

In fact, this week ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe confirmed that all branches want Zuma as their leader. No doubt they have a whiff of patronage ahead of the local government elections.

It is a dangerous world where the powerful fear no consequences from the law or citizenry.

But just as we thought Zuma’s world was contained to scandal within our borders, international broadcaster Al-Jazeera this week flighted an interview with our minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. To call the interview a disgrace and an utter embarrassment would be an understatement. Nkoana-Mashabane was so incoherent and unintelligent in the responses that the Twittersphere was rightly asking whether she was actually sober.

Recently Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies looked truly uncomfortable on BBC’s Hardtalk with Stephen Sackur. Yet, his interview looked like a stellar performance compared to Nkoana-Mashabane’s stream of consciousness.

The problem is, of course, that when under the glare of an international spotlight, there is nowhere to hide. In South Africa politicians are used to treating the media with disdain; arriving late, evading questions, controlling the floor with rants. Who can forget Mantashe’s ramble after Zuma’s non-apology for Nkandla. Yet, journalists stayed and listened.

And so naturally Nkoana-Mashabane thought she would simply do the same on Al-Jazeera. The frightening part of it was her disdain for the interviewer, Jane Dutton, as well as her complete detachment from reality. Her responses were peppered with self-referential non-sequiturs and an insistence on referring to herself as ‘Maite’. When asked about what young people thought of the ANC, she started a discussion about her own children and grandchildren. The interview ended in a defence of Zuma.

It was the face the Zuma administration placed before the world. It can only be described as insular in its inability to understand the gravity of the position of minister of international relations and a careless disregard for us as citizens. Doubtless Nkoana-Mashabane will shake it all off dismissively. Or perhaps she will simply fall asleep as she did in Parliament.

In places with higher levels of accountability and respect for the rule of law, Nkoana-Mashabane, Mapisa-Nqakula and Joemat-Pettersson would have been fired. But this is South Africa. Instead of this trio being under scrutiny, it is our finance minister watching his back.

So, Zuma will feel buoyed by Mantashe’s press conference and also his careful working of ANC branches, yet something will eventually give. The problem is the collateral damage that Zuma does for every day he remains in office. His acts of impunity simply encourage others to follow their leader. The state has become their personal fiefdom and accountability a word little understood. In this age of destruction, by arson, words or deed, it seems anything goes. But, while much of it has complex roots, much of it can also be described by that trite saying, “a fish rots from the head first”. Or as the Turkish say, “the fish stinks first at the head”, meaning, that if the servant is disorderly, it is because the master is so.

*This article was published in EyeWitness News. To view the article on their website click here

Judith February is a consultant on governance matters and affiliated to the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice.  Prior to that she was Executive Director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance Unit and also Head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme.  Judith has worked extensively on issues of good governance, transparency and accountability within the South African context.  She is a regular commentator in the media on politics in SA and in 2009 served on an ad hoc panel to evaluate the effectiveness of South Africa’s Parliament. She is a regular columnist for Media24 and also an occasional columnist for the Daily Maverick and other publications.  She is the co-editor of “Testing democracy: which way is South Africa going?” March 2010, Idasa. She was awarded a summer fellowship in 2009 at the Freeman Spogli Institute for Democracy Development and the rule of law at Stanford University, California and in 2012 was awarded a Spring Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC.

To see Judith February's extensive list of publications on our website please click here.

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