Will Mbeki Move to Put the Lid Back On?
President Thabo Mbeki moved decisively this week to put an end to the potentially damaging war of words between the country's most senior prosecutor, Bulelani Ngcuka, and the second most senior politician in the country, Deputy President Jacob Zuma. The appointment of a judicial commission, headed by Joos Hefer, the former acting chief of justice, is to report within weeks on whether or not Ngcuka was an apartheid spy.
The question on the lips of politicians both within the ruling party and the opposition benches is: will it make embarrassing and acrimonious fight between two members of the ruling party go away? And will it clear the names of the strategic institution of the national directorate of public prosecutions and the crack investigating unit - the Scorpions - that operates under its umbrella?
Significantly, the commission will have no bearing on the three problems that will continue to haunt Zuma: how long will the "prima facie evidence" that he is corrupt stick? How will he weather what is likely to be a harrowing trial of his financial advisor, Schabir Shaik? And will the French authorities co-operate with the Scorpions in a way that will lead to the re-opening of their case against Zuma?
Joel Netshitenzhe, the spokesperson for the president's office, also confirmed this week that the intelligence services were investigating the circumstances surrounding a cabinet leak to the media claiming that Zuma had won the day in a showdown with Penuell Maduna, the justice minister. The element of the Zuma/Ngcuka row that has surprised seasoned politicians is the depth of political venom that has been acted out in public between two men who did not have a history of interaction. Zuma, a former Robben Island prisoner, exile and head of ANC intelligence, was of a different generation to Ngcuka, a young human rights lawyer swept up in the heady populism of the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front (UDF).
What then lies behind the "spy" allegations against Ngcuka that led to a veteran ANC heavyweight, Mac Maharaj, confirming the existence of a file on Ngcuka, and a senior civil servant, Mo Shaik, appearing on a television programme brandishing thee top-secret file? There must have been a serious clash of cultures between the exiled ANC, whose code demanded total trust and loyalty as a pre-requisite for survival, and the more recent and progressive UDF, which is quicker to put the past behind it and move forward to strengthening the new democracy.
Even if Ngcuka did spy for the apartheid regime, it is debatable whether the matter is a priority for the society at large as long as he is good at his job and acts with integrity. But in exiled ANC ranks it is a matter of vital interest whether the country's top prosecutor - responsible for prosecuting errant ANC members such as Tony Yengeni and others - was a former apartheid spy. There are questions in the society - and within the government - whether the resources of the state should be used to put to rest a matter that is of far more interest to the ruling party than it is to the society at large.
It could be argued that - given the sensitivity of Ngcuka's function - it is a matter for the government. A counter view insists that the ANC should have cleared Ngcuka, but that could have backfired because the allegations were endorsed by a senior ANC member in the first place. The investigation into Zuma has been badly handled by the government. Zuma was shut out of the picture for nearly two years before questions were finally put to him and then it was done through the media. If Zuma had been seen to co-operate with the investigation from the start, the acrimony between him and Ngcuka might have been avoided.
In such a scenario, Mbeki could have urged Zuma to step back temporarily while the allegations were tested. Instead, the government's first spy leak has escalated into a damaging showdown within the ruling party, which a judicial system is unlikely to fix.
With acknowledgement to The Sunday Independent.