President Jacob Zuma will not be pressured into acting against Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde and national police commissioner General Bheki Cele, presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj has said.
This is despite Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s damning findings on the police headquarters lease scandal.
Instead, Zuma is “engaging” with his ministers to get their sides of the story before passing the hot potato to Parliament for a recommendation on the way forward.
Maharaj said in a statement on Tuesday that the “government does not act without interrogating information placed before it”.
Madonsela’s investigations found that Mahlangu-Nkabinde’s and Cele’s involvement in the rental rip-off was “unlawful”, “improper” and amounted to “maladministration”.
She recommended that action be taken against the implicated officials and appealed to Zuma to “do the right thing” in relation to Mahlangu-Nkabinde, who was also criticised for failing to co-operate during the probe.
As time has passed – the first report was released nearly six months ago and the final report came out a month ago – Zuma has come under increasing pressure to act against his disgraced officials.
But the Presidency has batted away suggestions that Zuma is stalling on the matter.
“President Zuma has been engaging (Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa and Mahlangu-Nkabinde) as there is information that is required from them in response to the reports.
“Once this process is concluded, he will submit his report to the Speaker of the National Assembly, Honourable Max Sisulu, as is protocol in terms of government relations with Chapter 9 institutions,” Maharaj said on Tuesday.
“We have also noted the lamentations by commentators that it is taking too long to respond to the public protector reports.
“Things are done procedurally in government and government decisions that are taken must be informed by facts, after following due process,” his statement read.
For “due process”, Zuma will rely on section 41(1) of the constitution, which deals with the principle of “co-operative government and intergovernmental relations”.
This section requires the spheres of government to assist each other and not to take internal disputes to courts unnecessarily.
However, the Presidency seems to have overlooked a crucial Constitutional Court judgment (Independent Electoral Commission v Langeberg Municipality, 2001) which declared that Chapter 9 institutions, such as the public protector, were not subject to this provision.
Referring to another Chapter 9 body, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the court said: “The very reason the constitution created the (IEC) – and other Chapter 9 bodies – was so that they should be, and manifestly be seen to be, outside government.
“(T)he constitution, in effect, describes the (IEC) as a state institution that strengthens constitutional democracy, and nowhere in Chapter 9 (of the constitution) is there anything from which an inference may be drawn that it is a part of the national government,” the court ruled.
Madonsela’s own stance on how her reports would be processed is unequivocal. “The Speaker may request a report for tabling in Parliament, but that does not interfere with the direct implementation of the public protector’s findings and points of view on appropriate remedial action,” she has said.
It is unclear why the president is passing the buck to MPs, but a previous protector’s report that was referred to Parliament may provide a clue about how the government plans to deal with Madonsela’s damning findings.
Former protector Selby Baqwa found that then minister of energy affairs Penuell Maduna had breached the constitution when he wrongly accused then auditor-general Henri Kluever of covering up a theft of R170 million from the Strategic Fuel Fund in 1997.
The discrepancy was later shown to have been the result of a simple accounting error.
Nonetheless, the report was referred to Parliament, where an ad hoc committee was set up to consider Baqwa’s report.
Baqwa came under intense questioning about his findings, mainly from ANC MPs, which prompted opposition members to claim the party was trying to divert attention from Maduna’s conduct.
Supporters of Madonsela fear ANC MPs will again try to punch holes in her report, rather than focusing on the misdeeds of Mahlangu-Nkabinde, Cele and other officials.
Maharaj also distanced Zuma from businessman Roux Shabangu, whose properties were to be leased at vastly inflated prices, saying “the president barely knows Mr Shabangu and any statement to the contrary is false”.
Maharaj also dismissed suggestions that there might be a link between the axing of former public works minister Geoff Doidge – who put the lease deals on hold pending an investigation – and the appointment of Mahlangu-Nkabinde, who promptly gave the deals the green light despite the protector’s ongoing probe into the matter.
“The urban legend doing the rounds states that President Jacob Zuma relieved (Doidge) of his duties (as minister) in October last year and appointed (Mahlangu-Nkabinde) in his place for the sole purpose of getting her to approve the leases, which (Doidge) had apparently dodged to do.
“This is all based on the rumour that (Shabangu), owner of the buildings, is supposedly a friend of the president. The rumours are without foundation. It is disappointing that some newsrooms have published or broadcast the rumours as fact, without checking with the Presidency,” Maharaj said.
Shabangu’s former lawyer, Natalie Visagie, wrote earlier that “President Zuma is a long-standing friend of my client”.
Shabangu later distanced himself from the letter. – Political Bureau