Chance for Mbeki to Show He is an Anticorruption Crusader
PRESIDENT Thabo Mbeki should refer the R43bn government arms procurement deal to Judge Willem Heath's special investigating unit to demonstrate that he is an anticorruption crusader.
Parliament's public accounts committee has called on Mbeki to issue a proclamation, giving the unit along with other investigating agencies the power to investigate allegations of corruption in the awarding of contracts. If Mbeki heeds the request of the committee, it would signal that far from being an "imperial" president he respects the wishes of Parliament. Thus far, Mbeki has not commented on the issue. This is a case of poor public relations, which gives the impression that he is stalling and that he has reservations about the committee's request.
The longer Mbeki delays, the more the credibility of a report in The Sunday Independent that the minister in his office, Essop Pahad, argued strongly against an investigation at a meeting of the African National Congress's (ANC's) governance committee.
Pahad's subsequent denial has carried little weight, as the public tends to judge politicians guilty until proved innocent. This might be unfair, but it is a reality that must be kept in mind when formulating a response to the committee's request.
Mbeki will probably make a decision after considering advice given to him by Justice Minister Penuell Maduna. Maduna's spokesman, Paul Setsete, said the minister had not yet formulated an opinion but ominously added that it would be "premature" to continue referring cases to the unit following the recent Constitutional Court ruling that Heath should vacate his post within a year.
Of all the government ministers SA has had since 1994, Maduna a lawyer by profession has shown the least respect for the institutions of democracy. As minerals and energy minister, Maduna used the parliamentary floor without following proper procedures to launch a blistering attack on then auditor-general Henri Kluever.
He accused Kluever of covering up the "theft" of R170m in the oil sector. Public Protector Selby Baqwa rebuked Maduna, finding that he had acted unconstitutionally by attacking the auditor-general's office. And after assuming the justice portfolio, Maduna was carpeted by Mbeki after attacking the Constitutional Court, whose judges, he suggested, were lazy.
Maduna has an opportunity to redeem himself by recommending to Mbeki that he yields to the parliamentary committee's request. Public accounts committee chairman Gavin Woods and ANC MPs deserve credit for demanding a probe into the arms deal.
The call for an investigation followed a report by Kluever's successor, Shauket Fakie, that generally accepted procurement procedures were not followed in the issuing of contracts. When the public accounts committee was constituted after the 1994 elections, fears were raised that it would be a poodle of the executive. These stemmed from the fact that the ANC gave the chairmanship of the committee to Woods, whose party, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), holds posts in the cabinet.
Woods was seen as "softie" not someone with the personality to butt heads with the executive. But he, along with ANC members on the committee, has proved his critics wrong. He has made a ruling against a senior member of his own party, Correctional Services Minister Ben Skosana. The committee ordered the sacking of Khulekani Sithole, the highest-ranking public servant in Skosana's department, after finding that he wasted state funds and that there were conflicts of interest between his public position and private interests.
As far as is it known, Skosana never applied pressure on Woods to go soft on Sithole. In the arms scandal, parliamentary speaker Frene Ginwala has not inspired confidence. She has given the impression that she wants to carry the hatchet for the executive by thwarting the committee's moves to get the Heath unit involved.
Ginwala was quoted in The Sunday Independent as saying that the committee had not followed proper procedures to get the president to issue a proclamation. Woods responded that while the request made to Mbeki was not "legally enforceable", it was "strongly implied that we want Heath involved".
The law might be on Mbeki's side but not public opinion. After his blemishes of the past year, Mbeki needs to restore confidence in his presidency. Bowing to the wishes of the public accounts committee, and referring the investigation to a judge whom the executive dislikes, could help him do that.
Mbeki has on a previous occasion ignored concerns raised by the committee. Woods wrote to him, saying the high turnover in the upper echelons of the public service could have a negative effect on governance. Rather than meeting the committee or asking Public Service and Administration Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi to do so Mbeki simply wrote back, dismissing the concerns that Woods had raised.
This was bad politics and to repeat the mistake would be foolish. If Mbeki disagrees with the committee, he should engage Woods and his colleagues in an attempt to win them over to his side. Mbeki has the option of appointing another unit, with powers similar to those of the Heath unit, to investigate the arms scandal. If he exercises this option, he should ensure that the unit has a credible head and that broad support exists within Parliament for the appointment.
With acknowledgement to Farouk Chothia and Business Day.