Let's Think

Will we now get an enquiry into enquiries?

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If recent history is anything to go by, South Africa might soon get a commission of enquiry or a task team to investigate the proliferation of official enquiries over the past almost decade.

Every time a controversy gets to dominate the news scene, and is about something that might embarrass government, or threaten the position of President Jacob Zuma, some form of official enquiry is launched. That has become the pattern now.

This serves to give the impression that government is taking the matter seriously, creates an opportunity to assess the nature of the danger, diminishes its urgency as other important topics take over the news headlines, and – most importantly – allows time to devise and deploy strategies to neutralise the threat.

Most often the result is that central figures in the controversy that are key to the threat, are offered irresistible retirement or ‘redeployment’ deals to remove them from the stage.

This usually comes at considerable expense to the taxpayer in terms of initially huge legal and other costs involved in these investigations, and finally cosy and costly retirement ‘settlements’.   

In January of this year we reported that the costs of protecting the position of President Zuma over the last decade in terms “of legal counsel alone are estimated to be at least R30 million”. Overall the cost was then already passing the R270 million mark.

Latest example

In the latest example President Zuma appointed an inquiry under the chairmanship of advocate Nazeer Cassim, into the fitness of National Director of Public Prosecutions, Mxolisi Nxasana, to hold office. Ten months later and on the morning of the commission’s - at last! - first sitting, it was announced the President had ordered its termination.

The announcement came to a room full of legal representatives, coming at an average fee of at least R14 000 each for the day, and of journalists present to report on the proceedings.

On top of, what now seems to be wasted legal costs, it is reported after talks between Mr Zuma (or his office) and Mr Nxasana, the NPP director will quietly go into retirement. It is not known what offer has been made to him, but recently the head of the Hawks special investigative unit, Anwa Dramat, went into retirement with a package reportedly worth R13 million.

The Seriti Commission of Inquiry into “allegations of fraud, corruption, impropriety or irregularity in the Strategic Defence Procurement Packages”, which have been going since 2012, according to an answer by Justice Minister Mike Masutha, in a written reply to a question in parliament, amounted “as at 30 September 2014 (to) R83,199 million”.

And these are only two of many examples. For instance, as the country is waiting for President Zuma to make public the report of the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the events at Marikana, it is reported that a deal to resign is about to be made with Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega, a central figure in what has become known as the “Marikana massacre”.

To this can be added the latest developments at the South African Revenue Service (SARS) in the wake of an ongoing controversy, accompanied by various investigations and suspensions of senior officials, around a special investigative unit at the institution.

Going to the root of the problem

Advocacy group Freedom Under Law, under the chairmanship of retired judge Johan Kriegler, seems to have finally had enough of this state of affairs. It announced that it is preparing to launch a court challenge to the suspensions, inquiries and financial settlements of a string of officials at the Hawks, the SA Revenue Service and now the National Prosecuting Authority.

Justice Kriegler said it would challenge the string of suspensions and settlements conducted under “compulsion or extreme moral pressure from those in control. The litigation will be to test the technique of suspending and then pressing into a settlement people in key state positions”.

Such action might just expose the root problem of a process that is destroying the legitimacy of key institutions supposed to ensure proper checks and balances in our democracy.

We believe if it is allowed to run its course it will expose the rot of governance based on patronage and cadre deployment rather than one based on true independent institutions, staffed on the basis of merit and proven integrity.

But if it looks as though the process will be gaining momentum, we think one should not be surprised if some sort of ‘commission of inquiry on commissions of inquiry’ pops out of the woodwork.

by Piet Coetzer

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