Tragedy and farce

‘If God is on our side, who is against us?” Frank Chikane, then turbulent anti-apartheid priest, famously asked in the 1980s. But in Parliament last week it was the devils of old on the opposition benches who argued for justice against Chikane, now director general in the presidency and a slippery customer.

We face threats to national security so pressing as to warrant the suspension of the rule of law, and far too dire to tell the public about, he said in support of President Kgalema Motlanthe’s decision to sack suspended prosecutions chief Vusi Pikoli.

Chikane told the parliamentary committee set up to decide whether to implement the dismissal that Mbeki had not acted against Pikoli to protect Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi against a Scorpions investigation, but because the manner of the investigation would have triggered a security crisis. To move against the police, he suggested, ”you may need the president to command the army”.

”As head of state … you get intelligence reports. You know what’s happening in the police, the army, with criminals. The only person who has all the information is the president. The only person who can make a decision to arrest an official like [Selebi] is the president.

”When it was seen that [the Scorpions] might rock up in the middle of the night at crime intelligence and create a major crisis for the country, the suspension was effected.”

Justifying Mbeki’s widely discredited claim that Pikoli had been put on ice because his relationship with then justice minister Brigitte Mabandla had broken down, Chikane said: ”There are things about security you don’t say. You don’t wake up and say ‘the country is at risk.”

It was classic Mbeki logic. South Africa’s constitutional order was apparently so fragile that, before the Polokwane conference, a move against Selebi might have provoked armed battles between security agencies.

Pursued by journalists to confirm he meant this, Chikane said: ”Now I’ve created an impression in your mind that I don’t want to talk about. I can’t give a press conference now,” and fled the venue.

He must have known that among those trying to get answers from him was Tertius Delport, once a moderately senior figure in the apartheid regime so fond of citing security threats.

The Scorpions’ 2005 raid on the Union Buildings, to secure evidence against Jacob Zuma, was further evidence of Pikoli’s indifference to security concerns, Chikane suggested. Unvetted private contractors who made mirror copies of computers during the raid could have been foreign agents. ”You have to remember other countries have billions of rand to compromise our systems — you don’t know what they’ve got,” he insisted.

In a rare curve-ball from ANC benches, outspoken sports committee chair Butana Komphela pointed out that other government agencies also used unvetted private contractors and that Scorpions’ efforts to speed up vetting had been frustrated.

Replied Chikane: ”It’s true that there were capacity challenges at one stage, but even to have this discussion creates security problems.”

It was obvious what he, assisted by Justice Minister Enver Surty, was trying to do. ”It seems that [security] is an afterthought added to justify the suspension,” said ACDP MP Steve Swart.

”This committee has an impossible task. We cannot ignore the findings of the Ginwala inquiry [that Pikoli should keep his job], or the submissions of advocate Pikoli, and so [ANC decision-makers] have thrown out this security thing as a life jacket.”

Equally bizarre was a sustained attempt to blame Pikoli for the notorious Browse Mole report, and its leaking, despite his clear explanation of the chain of events and the absence of evidence. Mbeki told Pikoli that the report, which warned of possible insurrection among security agencies, was ”80% true”.

Indeed, it echoed Chikane’s own apocalyptic warnings of ”crisis”. Yet he and ANC MPs insisted Pikoli showed insensitivity to national security when he handed it to intelligence chiefs.

Bizarrely, too, ruling party MPs repeatedly suggested that, had Pikoli indulged in a little communist self-criticism, he might have kept his job.

In responding to President Motlanthe, ”you [Pikoli] seem to present yourself almost as infallible”, justice committee chair Yunis Carrim chided, in what would become a persistent theme. Had Pikoli accepted the rope thus offered, it would promptly have been used to hang him.

He will be hanged regardless, as the ANC’s national working committee made clear last week by endorsing Motlanthe’s recommendation.

False bonhomie from co-chair Oupa Monareng, Chikane’s professions of personal pain and unusually heavy research and media support from Parliament only highlighted the mingling of tragedy and farce.

Opposition MPs, parliamentary officials, civil society observers and a few squirming ANC representatives agreed the hearings were a ritual observance of democratic rules with one possible outcome: Parliament will fire Pikoli and he will then take his battle to court.

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