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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Spinning the yarn on Nkandla

Doris Dlakude and Jackson Mthembu address the media
After two years of dizzying ANC spin and opposition antics, there were high hopes on April Fools’ Day that the protracted Nkandla affair might finally stop dominating the Hansard reports on Parliament.
This might have been feasible if the president had done the honourable thing and agreed to – or, even better, insisted on – stepping down after his drubbing from Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
Amid President Jacob Zuma’s bold alert that he would address the nation, a wizened colleague advised me not to cancel my dinner plans. Seeing through the frenzied hype, she anticipated Zuma’s stand-to-attention as a foolhardy move.
After Zuma confirmed he was going nowhere, the Nkandla circus once again became the only show on the precinct on Tuesday, when Parliament resumed after recess. Distracted MPs – from both the ANC and opposition caucuses – rushed through important portfolio committee meetings to konkel (get together and scheme) before the 14:00 sitting of the House.
When new ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu convened a media briefing the following day, he defended the majority party’s decision to block the opposition’s motion to remove the president.
But he also showed humility, and even regret, that the ANC had rammed through the infamous resolution passed in the National Assembly by Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, which absolved Zuma from complying with the remedial action set by the Public Protector and which the Constitutional Court order has now nullified.
His deputy, Doris Dlakude, took a harder line in her insistence that the process that Parliament had followed was not faulty.
Then she rehashed the nonsensical narrative that Zuma had always planned to pay back the money. “The president didn’t say he wouldn’t pay … He waited for advice as to how much he should pay,” she insisted.
But Dlakude overlooked Zuma’s report to the Speaker of the National Assembly in August 2014 – five months after the Public Protector’s damning findings were released.
He stated clearly that a determination needed to be made as “to whether the president is liable for any contribution in respect of the security upgrades”.
And the president asked Nhleko to determine this question of liability. He also tasked the police minister to report back to Cabinet on a determination, instead of Treasury, as stipulated by the Public Protector.
The subsequent report by the little-known, newly appointed minister absolved his master, made a laughing stock of Parliament and irked the Constitutional Court.
Amid the spin, there are some indisputable facts from the past two years that cannot be expunged. The governing party should consult the records.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan after the opposition's failed motion against the president.
The Hansard and other archives have documented what must be the lowest performance in Parliament since the advent of democracy in 1994, and the sorry chapter is not yet over.
This column first appeared on Media 24 platforms in April:

No-nonsense Pravin cuts back on budget snacks

A routine Treasury advisory to the media about arrangements for the budget speech on Wednesday may not be what journalists want to hear.
The advisory cautions that due to “cost-containment measures, there might be scaling down on the refreshments provided”. Poorly paid, on-the-go and nutrient-deprived hacks covering the Budget are advised to “come prepared with additional snacks” for the long hours that they are in lock-up from 6am - unable to leave the parliamentary buildings until Gordhan tables his speech in the National Assembly.
While journalists can anticipate leaner fillings on their sarmies on Wednesday, the advisory sends a strong message that the finance Minister means business, and is intent on trimming the fat everywhere.
It is also apparent that the Minister knows the importance of leading from the top. While some ministers struggle to defend the hundreds of thousands of Rands spent on overseas jaunts while the economy is on the skids, the finance Minister earned praise when he was photographed travelling on an economy flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg after the State of the Nation address  (SONA).
Although lavish and unchecked personal spending was evident on the red carpet on 11 February, it was a marginally less grandiose occasion. The celebratory post-SONA dinner was canned, a casualty of fiscal prudence which saw the budget for the event almost halved from two years ago, down to R3.5 million.
The customary media cocktail network session hosted by the presidency was also shelved this week. Parliament has been forced to tighten up generally, with virtual tea-on-tap services curtailed for MPs forced to sit through lengthy committee meetings. It has also been reported that Parliament’s building plans to enlarge the precinct are also on hold.
In his state of the nation address, Zuma glibly set the tone for Gordhan’s cost-cutting budget. Overseas trips by government officials will be approved only if they are able to motivate what the benefits are for the country, and the size of delegations will be reduced. Zuma also announced that dinners traditionally hosted by government departments after budget votes speeches will be scrapped.
These overdue interventions emphasise that every cent counts. But these savings are minuscule compared to the excessive bleeding of state resources from the top - in Zuma’s Cabinet and at state owned enterprises - and also in provinces and municipalities.
Gordhan has the will to make a difference. While journalists munch on their Tupperware leftovers on Wednesday, the true test will be if the second-time round Finance Minister has the power to stop the rot and rein in the big spenders.
This column first appeared on Media24 platforms in February:

Hani's killer to be freed into country he tried to prevent

I felt my whiteness as I walked through the crowd. I was outside Chris Hani’s home in Boksburg in 1993 after he had been gunned down by right-wingers. Shattered mourners glared at me suspiciously. As an idealistic young reporter inspired by the nonracial ethos of the United Democratic Front, I felt an unfamiliar unease.
Now, more than 21 years since the birth of the rainbow nation, I have felt the stereotype of my whiteness again. I am aware that, even when I write, I may be judged not as a South African, but as a white person.
It is true that many white people are cocooned from challenging realities. They share the blame for the rise in mistrust and anger among black South Africans. In many families, racial superiority passes down – unchallenged and unchecked – to the next generation.
This is why commentator Justice Malala appealed this week for white people to show empathy. He urged them to acknowledge, once and for all, that “those days under apartheid were worse than you could imagine”.
But it is foolhardy to peddle the notion that Penny Sparrow represents most white people, or that whiteness is still responsible for the country’s current crop of woes.
When I spoke at my old school, Camps Bay High, for Founders Day recently, I choked back tears as I stood before a hall-full class of black and white kids. How different would things have been if this hall looked like that when I wore my green-and-white uniform 30 years ago?
And yet, despite these transformational moments of hope and pride, the vengeful claw of extremism, cynicism, vitriol and finger-pointing has gripped social media.
Amid the wake-up call of recent weeks, we have an opportunity to break free. A starting point would be to stop being defensive and to open up and interact – about our roots, our prejudices, our differences. Let’s talk about our whiteness and our blackness.
Parliament has a role to play. Why not encourage honest dialogue in a mini Truth and Reconciliation Commission moment? MPs who have crossed the line with inflammatory racial hatred should be accountable to the public. Dianne Kohler Barnard should answer – in an open forum – for her Facebook blunder hankering after apartheid.
It is not good enough for the DA or a parliamentary ethics committee to deal with the matter behind closed doors. The same goes for ANC MP Bongani Mkongi, who called for people to be burnt to death in retaliation for the erection of a billboard in Cape Town pronouncing that President Jacob Zuma must fall.
To cool hot heads, and the air, we need leadership. We need another Nelson Mandela, who called for calm after Hani’s assassination.
Instead of a race war, Mandela led a broken nation into a new order filled with hope, goodwill and possibility, idealistic as it may seem right now.
This column originally appeared in March on Media24 platforms: