Sackings by Zuma first of their kind in 3 decades

President Jacob Zuma

[notice]Although he took a long time to take action, President Jacob Zuma deserves recognition for sacking two cabinet ministers as a direct result of politically-connected corruption or impropriety, says Catholic Parliamentary Liason Office Research Coordinator Mike Pothier. But he cautions against adopting a naïve approach to these developments[/notice]

The importance of President Zuma’s dismissal yesterday of Ministers Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde and Sicelo Shiceka can be indicated by the number 33. In November 1978, 33 years ago, Dr Connie Mulder, Minister of Information in the National Party government, was dismissed from office as a result of his dishonest and duplicitous involvement in what became known as the ‘info scandal’.

Since then, a number of ministers have been quietly let go, or not re-appointed after an election, usually because they have offended the prevailing political orthodoxy or faction; others have taken early retirement or been left out after a reshuffle; and some have been moved sideways into ambassadorial or party positions. But until yesterday no minister in over three decades had unambiguously been given the sack as a direct result of politically-connected corruption or impropriety.

For taking this step President Zuma deserves credit and recognition. Neither Mr Mandela nor Mr Mbeki, in the ANC era, could bring themselves to dismiss directly even the worst-performing and dodgiest of ministers.

Mr Zuma’s announcement of a board of enquiry into the allegations against police commissioner Bheki Cele, and the latter’s suspension, is equally welcome. The fact that it is to be headed by the retired Constitutional Court judge, Yvonne Mokgoro, inspires confidence. The same is true of the three judges who will constitute the commission of enquiry into the arms deal. It might have been preferable to have retired judges here too (being retired, they cannot be accused of angling for preferment by returning an ‘acceptable’ finding) but this is little more than a quibble1.

All of this is good news. Two credible and independent enquiries into matters of vital political importance are about to get underway. And any minister currently contemplating a shifty deal or a personal indulgence at taxpayers’ expense will hopefully think again. We have previously criticised Mr Zuma for his lack of leadership and direction; it would be wrong now not to praise him for demonstrating precisely these qualities.

It would be equally wrong, though, to adopt a naïve approach to these announcements. They represent an important crack in the edifice of non-accountability and ministerial arrogance that has been allowed to develop since the honeymoon days of 1994. But we are still learning almost every day of ministers who manage to spend hundreds of thousands of rands on five-star hotel accommodation while their luxurious official residences stand empty; of millions being spent on housing for minor office-bearers such as the deputy-speaker of Parliament; of the vast amounts that are devoted to international travel on chartered aeroplanes by members of the executive when perfectly adequate commercial flights are available.

We must also await the publication of the terms of reference of the two investigations, particularly that into the arms deal. If they are in any way limited in their scope or constrained in their enquiries, much of today’s positive feeling will melt away. And we cannot ignore the possibility that political machinations connected to next year’s ANC elective conference may have played a role in today’s announcements; time will tell if this is so.

Lastly, we must ask why it took so long for Mr Zuma to act. The Public Protector released her reports into the scandal that has now felled Ms Mahlangu-Nkabinde and Mr Cele over two months ago; and the clear evidence against Mr Shiceka has been public knowledge for just as long. As for the arms deal, it has been festering since 1999. Mr Zuma has certainly acted firmly; hopefully, if in future the need arises again, he will act quickly as well.

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