/ 4 March 2011

Crude attack on protector

During the Thabo Mbeki administration the office of the public protector was under attack from within as Lawrence Mushwana deferred to his governing party bosses rather than to the Constitution. Last week we said it was now, more than ever, in need of protection. That concern has been borne out.

Under President Jacob Zuma the institution is under a cruder sort attack from the outside, by officers of the shadowy and unaccountable crime intelligence ­division and the political heavies who run it. It is not very hard to join the dots.

Thuli Madonsela has, with the help of the Special Investigating Unit, produced the kind of report that her constitutional duties demand of her and has put General Bheki Cele squarely in the frame for the SAPS’s dodgy procurement of new headquarters from Zuma’s friend, Roux Shabangu.

Cabinet can find nothing to say about the report, a fortnight after its release, except that government is “processing it”. “Processing” is a remarkably anodyne euphemism for what the agents of the state were actually doing while the Cabinet meeting was taking place: visiting Madonsela’s office to request documents relating to the investigation.

Chapter Nine bodies like the Office of the Public Protector are known as “Institutions Protecting Constitutional Democracy”, so while the visit by crime intelligence was not an outright raid, it represents a potent, implicit threat to Madonsela and, by extension to the SIU.

Abuse of power
As such, it marks an escalation in the abuse of power by Cele’s minions, who have hitherto directed much of their wrath against the media. First, there was the arrest and detention of Sunday Times reporter Mzilikazi wa Afrika, just four days after he and Stefan Hofstatter broke the dodgy lease story. Wa Afrika was transported to Mpumalanga, interrogated about his political affiliations and ultimately released when the trumped-up charges against him disintegrated at the first bit of court scrutiny.

Then there was the interdict against the Sunday Independent, preventing it from publishing details of the hiring practice at crime intelligence, which was swiftly followed by a surveillance operation allegedly mounted against the newspaper’s Gcwalisile Khanyile by operatives of the division. Khanyile had reported on allegations of nepotism, corruption and mismanagement within the division and claimed some of those involved had the protection of Cele.

It seems Madonsela refused to hand anything over, which will no doubt be held up by the SAPS spin team as proof that the system is working and there is nothing to worry about. On the contrary, the fact that crime intelligence is devoting any operational resources at all to this matter is deeply disturbing.

It cannot but arouse suspicion that the department is working as a clean-up squad for Cele. It is President Zuma’s failure to act — or indeed to say anything at all — in the wake of Madonsela’s report that has created the space for this kind of behaviour. Until he says otherwise, we have no choice but to believe that he approves of it.

To read the second half of the editorial (Manuel’s clarion call), click here.