Editorials

Editorial: Zuma not above law, identity crisis or no

Editorial

While attempting to protect Jacob Zuma, the ANC seems to have forgotten the rationale behind the establishment of the office of the public protector.

President Jacob Zuma and other ANC leaders found it difficult to deal with the public protector’s persistent questions to the president about state expenditure on his private homestead at Nkandla. (David Harrison, M&G)

In their frantic attempt to protect the president, ANC leaders seem to have forgotten the rationale behind the establishment of the office of the public protector. Before 1994, the executive acted with impunity – often hiding behind the scarecrow of “national security” – and ignored and disempowered the ombudsman, the predecessor of the public protector.

Democracy, by contrast, warrants transparency and accountability. Commendably, the ANC established, supported and empowered the office of the public protector. But no one imagined that two decades later the president himself would be investigated by the public protector.

Hence President Jacob Zuma, ANC chief whip Stone Sizani, ruling party secretary general Gwede Mantashe and his deputy, Jessie Duarte, found it difficult to deal with the public protector’s persistent questions to the president about state expenditure on his private homestead at Nkandla.

To confuse matters further, Zuma tends to conflate his personal obligations with his role as head of the executive in responding to the public protector. This was clear in his meagre response to Parliament, in which he interchangeably referred to himself in the first and third persons.

Likewise, it is strange that the president also got the Special Investigating Unit to investigate him – in effect – and then report to him. This anomaly was neither imagined nor intended by our lawmakers. In her report, public protector Thuli Madonsela concluded that the president must repay a portion of what was spent by the state on his home. But Zuma, responding as the head of government, said he would ask the police minister “to report to Cabinet on … whether the president is liable for any contribution”.

Again, he is confusing his role as president and his being the subject of these investigations. Madonsela was correct to remind Zuma that his conduct “may have been unethical and in violation of the executive ethics code”. And she cautioned him against wrongly conferring powers on the police minister.

For the ANC to call this an “abuse of her term” means that its leaders have forgotten why there is a public protector. It is equally disturbing to hear the ANC caucus saying Zuma is not obliged under any law to respond directly to the public protector. Section 11 of the Public Protector Act makes it an offence to refuse to comply with the public protector’s directions.

Sizani said the Executive Members Ethics Act “directs that the president must submit a report to Parliament, not to the public protector’s office, for its consideration”.

It looks as though the ANC is prepared to dent the credibility and integrity of our constitutional institutions to protect its president. At what cost? The ruling party’s public attack on the public protector also sends an unnerving warning to other public institutions and watchdog bodies – that they had best not probe unethical conduct at the highest level.

These unwarranted attacks on her have left Madonsela no choice but to insist that no one is above the law.

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