No matter the significant ring of its formal terms of reference, the Hefer Commission of Inquiry into whether National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka was a spy for the former apartheid government is little more than a political fix that will be discarded in a couple of months.
It has to fix the brawl between Deputy President Jacob Zuma and Ngcuka, who has accused Zuma of being involved in corruption in the government’s multibillion-rand arms deal. The fight between the two has split the ruling African National Congress and dragged the name of the South African government through the mud internationally.
The allegations against Ngcuka, which the commission is investigating, are part of the slander and smear campaigns the two sides have been waging against each other.
President Thabo Mbeki’s hope may have been that by appointing a commission of inquiry into the allegations against Ngcuka, the public brawl between two senior ANC representatives would become bogged down in a judicial process. This would either give the storm time to blow over or give Mbeki time to come up with a better plan.
That the commission is a tactical fix and not an inquiry of substance is revealed by the fact that the president is not that interested in whether or not Ngcuka was a spy for the apartheid government — ostensibly the main reason the commission has been appointed.
In the ruling party’s newsletter, ANC Today, of a fortnight ago, he argued: “… a determined effort is being made to oblige our movement and government to release names of members of the ANC and our government who allegedly served as agents of the secret intelligence services of the apartheid regime. Quite why this should apply only to members of the ANC is not explained.
“Everyday we work with people who were an integral part of the apartheid system. Some of these serve in our legislatures and other state institutions. We have done this because we are determined to put the past behind us, by promoting the unity of our people.”
After the findings of the Hefer commission are presented to Mbeki, how he deals with them is at his discretion. There is no law against having spied on the ANC for the apartheid government.
Not only does the commission lack substance, neither will it be able to distract from the corruption cloud hanging over the deputy president and, by extension, the government and the ruling party.
In less than two weeks Mbeki will have to respond to a report by the Public Protector, Lawrence Mushwana, into whether Zuma failed to declare gifts he received in Parliament’s register of member’s assets.
Parliament may have to decide on how it will discipline Zuma. Its fine and censure against Minister of Defence Mosiuoa Lekota for failing to declare business interests earlier this month have set a precedent. Thus the political focus could move from the Hefer inquiry to Parliament.
Another legal process may also determine that the Hefer commission becomes little more than a political sideshow and an historical footnote.
The inquiry into Zuma’s failure to declare gifts he received to Parliament was sparked when the investigative unit of the National Prosecutions Authority — better known as the Scorpions — looked into whether he was involved in corruption in the arms deal and turned up details of undeclared donations to the deputy president.
The donations came from Zuma’s long-standing friend and financial adviser, Schabir Shaik. Shaik has been charged by the prosecutions authority with involvement in corruption in the arms deal.
Zuma is also alleged to have an interest in Nkobi Holdings, Shaik’s company. The close correlation between the charges Shaik faces and the allegations against Zuma means Shaik’s case is effectively a trial by proxy of the deputy president.
Shaik goes back to court early next year and Zuma will face a new spate of accusations. All of this will most likely happen in tandem with the campaign for the next general election, now widely expected to be held around April next year. It will hang over the ANC campaign.
But even if the commission, the court cases and the internal conflicts drag on, the ANC has the greatest capacity of any major South African political organisation to remain united and cohesive, and even fight an election, despite sharp rifts in its ranks.
The ANC has always been riven by ideological or personality-based factions and has coped with the departure from centre stage of some of its most senior leaders — Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Bantu Holomisa are two recent examples.
Much has also been read into the request by Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Penuell Maduna that the commission also investigate rumours that he was a spy, and his announcement that he would not be available for his Cabinet post next year. Too much, in fact.
Maduna has been dropping hints that he wanted to leave his job for some time and the allegations that he was involved in corruption in his department, or that he had come under attack from within the ANC for his support of Ngcuka, are just his most recent reasons.
The manner in which he chose to make the move, announcing it to the media rather than formally informing the ANC, has resulted in the organisation ganging up on him — something that will most likely bring his political career to a dead end, never mind what the Hefer commission does or doesn’t turn up.
“The national working committee took a dim view of the fact that it had to read about Maduna’s decision in the media,” it said in one of the few recorded examples of understatement by the committee responsible for the day-to-day operations of the ANC.
Whatever the findings of the Hefer commission, it cannot be good for the ANC: either a senior member of the organisation turns out to have been an apartheid spy; or the stars of its former intelligence network, like Mac Maharaj and Mo Sheik, got it wrong when they identified Ngcuka as a possible informer. Both are scheduled to testify at the commission.
But the consolation for the organisation is that the outcome of the commission is unlikely to have an effect on the results of the next big political story in South Africa, the coming election.
Even if the ANC is not able to shake off the popular perceptions of divisions and corruption, many opinion pollsters point out that ANC supporters who become disillusioned with the organisation simply stay away from the polls, they do not switch their support to other parties.
And while corruption and the allegations against Zuma have dominated headlines — it is not a top election issue.
Says the director of market research agency Markinor, Mari Harris: “Unless the opposition and the media make it one, I don’t think the commission and the perceptions of corruption will be an election issue.
“In any event, at this stage the ANC is still seen as a liberation movement and it’s not the done thing to vote against it on an issue like this,” she explains.
Markinor regularly conducts opinion polls on levels of public support for political parties and popular attitudes on social and economic issues. So the Hefer commission will not put an end to the fire in the ranks of the ANC, but neither will it significantly affect the national political strength of the organisation. It is sound and fury signifying nothing.
This is not to dismiss the commission — one of the most politically significant events of the year. It is simply an attempt to place it in the context of what is set to be a long-running battle in the ranks of the ANC, and South African political life, in the coming year.
If Ngcuka is cleared, his investigation into Zuma will not be tainted by allegations that the charges against the deputy president are simply a plot by old apartheid forces against the new government. They can then be dealt with on their own merit.
There is little doubt that public attention will be gripped by the inquiry and public perceptions of the ANC influenced by the experience of seeing its leaders besmirch each other with allegations of treachery, corruption and abuse of power.
But for now Mbeki and the ANC will have to ride out the Hefer commission hearings and the start of the Shaik trial. It is only after the next election, when Mbeki will be able to reshuffle the Cabinet, that he will have a chance to decisively intervene to try to sort out the debacle.
That is the political moment to watch, as only then will Zuma’s and Ngcuka’s fate be decided.