Originally published in Response October 12 2018 — from the Parliamentary Advisory Office of the SA Catholic Bishops’ Conference
This week brought news of two very significant and positive developments as far as standards of good governance in South Africa are concerned. One of them attracted headline coverage while the other – in its way just as important – seems to have caused little more than a ripple in the media.
Nhlanhla Nene’s resignation from Cabinet is unprecedented. When President Thabo Mbeki was recalled by the ANC, various ministers resigned in solidarity with him, but this is the first time in our democratic era that a minister has stepped down voluntarily because of his or her own sense of having fallen short of the required standards of honour and integrity. That decision, of itself, does a lot to bolster those standards.
It is sad that an obviously decent and effective member of the executive has departed under a cloud (and sadder still that quite a few less decent and effective ministers show no sign of emulating Mr Nene’s graceful exit) but that is the price that must be paid for his lapse of judgment in fraternising with the likes of the Gupta brothers; and for his less excusable decision to lie about the meetings afterwards. In doing the right thing now Mr Nene has performed a valuable service and there is no reason why, after a period, someone of his skills and integrity should not be brought back into public life. Whatever we think about his contact with the Guptas, it should not be forgotten that Mr Nene seems to have been the ‘Horatio at the bridge’, saving us from what would have been a financially catastrophic nuclear power deal with Russia.
This resignation also allowed President Ramaphosa to further assert his authority, over both government and his party, by calling on one of the leading figures from the pre-Zuma era to take up this crucial and very powerful post. It cannot be imagined that Tito Mboweni would have been the unanimous choice of the ANC’s current top six or of the NEC. That Mr Ramaphosa felt able to nominate him is thus more than just a matter of reaching back to a time of higher and better standards of governance; it is also a sign of the President’s increasing strength and sense of control. It is also to be noted that, in Mr Mboweni, he has not appointed an apparatchik – someone who will merely follow the President’s instructions. Everything in the new Finance Minister’s background suggests that he has very firm and clear views on fiscal and monetary matters; and that he is not likely to deviate from them merely in order to preserve his new position.
This presidential confidence is also behind the second, less-noticed, development. Mr Ramaphosa has to appoint a new head of the National Prosecuting Authority by mid-November. Section 179 of the Constitution gives the President an unfettered discretion to make this appointment, and it is precisely this unilateral power that – many have argued – is largely responsible for the continuing sense of crisis in the NPA. It has led to the politicisation of the office, and to a succession of unsuitable appointments; no NPA head since 1994 has completed their 10-year term of office.
Now, Mr Ramaphosa has convened an advisory panel to provide him with a list of names to select from; the panel is mostly drawn from the various legal professional organisations, with the interesting addition of the SA Human Rights Commission and the Auditor-General. It seems the President will be able to add names of his own choosing, and there is no indication that he has bound himself irrevocably to picking one of the panel’s nominees.
Nevertheless, this is an important step forward. It invites a level of participation and consultative input well beyond what the Constitution requires. And it goes a long way to conceding the point that the head of the NPA, like judges, the Public Protector, and various other senior office-holders in the justice sphere, should be appointed only after proper public participation. It would have been even better if Mr Ramaphosa had given Parliament a role in the selection process, but maybe that will come in time.
A weak or insecure President, or one disinclined to observe anything more than the constitutional minimum, would have been unlikely to open his powers of appointment to even this degree of public input.
Both these developments, then, suggest that Mr Ramaphosa is consciously advancing standards of good governance, and helping to set important precedents. Each time he does so, he pulls the country’s public administration another step back from the brink of ethical collapse to which his predecessor brought it.