Loose lips locked down: State mutes communiqués

The government has clamped down on communications by various departments affected by the Public Protector’s report in an effort to allow the Government Communication Information System (GCIS), headed by Jimmy Manyi, to oversee all official statements.

This comes as President Jacob Zuma agonises over whether to act against the minister of public works and the national police commissioner.

A senior government communications officer sent out a communiqué this week to government departments affected by the scandal, asking that all communications concerning the Public Protector be coordinated by the GCIS.

This probably explains the last-minute cancellation of a planned press conference by national commissioner Bheki Cele to respond to the Public Protector’s findings on the leasing of a Pretoria building for police headquarters. Cele’s office has not given reasons why the briefing was cancelled, confirming only that it was cancelled after “discussions”.

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Zuma has said he is studying the report, but he faces a headache after Public Protector Thuli Madonsela recommended he “do the right thing” about Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde.

Mahlangu-Nkabinde pushed the Pretoria lease through against senior legal opinion and despite her department’s decision to suspend it.

Madonsela said Mahlangu-Nkabinde’s behaviour was improper and unlawful and that the minister had failed to meet the requirement of statesmanship expected from her.

Zuma must also decide the fate of Cele, who, according to people close to him, feels he was “exonerated” after the report could not establish that he was guilty of any fraud or criminal activity.

Centralising communication
The Mail & Guardian has established that following a conference last Friday attended by the GCIS, the presidency and public works, the GCIS chief director Neo Momodu contacted the relevant departments on Monday to inform them of the decision to centralise communication.

Her letter asked all parties to liaise with the GCIS before publicly commenting so that government did not send out mixed messages on the matter.
What is not certain is whether the letter meant that the GCIS would communicate on behalf of everyone henceforth or would just study what each department wanted to say before deciding whether to give them the go-ahead.

Momodu told the M&G to speak to her boss, Manyi, who did not respond to requests for comment.

But this week, a day after the communiqué, Manyi spoke to the Independent newspapers, complaining that the protector’s office had put Cabinet at a disadvantage by going public with her report.

By making the reports public, he said, “undue pressure” had been exerted upon the executive and those implicated in the reports were being prejudiced.

“How much prejudice has this caused for the persons implicated? This was not the perfect route taken, to be blunt.”

He said Madonsela had thrown into “turmoil” Cabinet’s “road map” to deal with the findings. “The executive is disadvantaged right now,” Manyi said.

After the Public Protector released her first report dealing with the Pretoria building lease, Cele held a press conference at which he questioned the findings. Mahlangu-Nkabinde also later held her own press conference in which she, too, differed with the report’s conclusions.

Momodu told the M&G there was nothing else to say on the matter.

The presidency this week said it was still studying the report and would comment in due course.

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The damning report
Madonsela found that the Pretoria lease agreement and another in Durban were invalid because their procurements had not complied with constitutional requirements. She found that the police had contravened policy by identifying the buildings before involving the public works department.

She recommended that Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa, with the assistance of the national treasury, should take urgent steps to ensure appropriate action was instituted against all relevant SAPS officials.

Cele confidants insist that he is not personally fingered and that even if he were included in the list of implicated officials, only the president would be empowered to act against him.

They contrast that with the clear instruction of the report for the president to take action against the minister of public works.

Cele has long been close to Zuma and played an instrumental role in securing his presidency of the ANC.

But the recent intelligence report by suspended police official Richard Mdluli said Cele was “plotting” with people who wanted to remove Zuma as ANC president next year. Cele has also denied the reports that he could have been acting with the acquiescence of the president when he allegedly favoured Roux Shabangu in the leasing deal. He said he had never discussed the lease with Zuma, neither had he known Shabangu before.

The New Age has speculated that Cele could be sent to Japan as ambassador, but the presidency has denied the report. A confidant of Cele said that if Zuma were to insist he fall on his sword, he would wonder whether he was not being punished as a result of the Mdluli report rather than his work as police commissioner.

Although the media and civil society have called on Zuma to fire Cele, it looks increasingly likely that such a move could lead to tension between the two and could open a can of worms.

Before Mdluli was suddenly arrested and charged with murder, he obtained a secret “ground coverage intelligence report” of corruption and related activities in KwaZulu-Natal. The report details extensive allegations of corruption against Cele.

It focused on allegations made against Cele and contracts awarded during and after his tenure as MEC for transport in the province. But questions were raised about why he released the report just before his arrest for murder.

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane

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