Zuma’s questionable motives

Is it an ambush by scandal on the road to Mangaung or a wise capitulation in the face of a near-certain court defeat?

Those alternatives broadly sum up the reaction to President Jacob Zuma’s decision to release the report of the Donen Commission, which investigated South African involvement in the payment of kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime in return for oil allocations.

The Cape Argus newspaper has been pursuing a bid for access to the report in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).

If you were reading your Mail & Guardian in 2004, you will recall that two important threats to Zuma’s pre-eminence, Kgalema Motlanthe and Tokyo Sexwale, were deeply implicated in the “oil-for-food” scandal. Both men will see their reputations hurt by the publication of the report. That, of course, is no reason to keep it secret and we welcome its publication, which we believe will further confirm many of the details of our reporting seven years ago.

But the suggestion that Zuma is releasing the report because of a sudden commitment to open government, or to pre-empt a pointless court battle, won’t wash. Certainly the experience of the M&G suggests that when it comes to PAIA, Zuma is more than happy to risk defeat.

We have been fighting for three years to obtain a report by judges Dikgang Moseneke and Sisi Khampepe on the constitutional environment in which Zimbabwe’s rigged 2002 elections took place. We won in the high court and we won again, resoundingly, in the Supreme Court of Appeal. That didn’t stop Zuma from taking the case to the Constitutional Court, which is currently deliberating on its judgment.

South Africans have been through nearly a decade of succession wars conducted under the cover of legal battles and leaks and we are now incapable of remaining credulous in the face of these contradictions. After all, as we learned in early 2009, it is possible for two contending narratives to be true at the same time.

The National Prosecuting Authority did have compelling evidence of fraud and corruption against Zuma, as the Thabo Mbeki camp insisted, but the case against him was also subject to political influence, as his supporters kept complaining.

Similarly, there is plenty of reason to believe Motlanthe and Sexwale were up to their necks in dodgy crude just before the US-led invasion of Iraq and that the legal process is a politically convenient pretext for Zuma. Certainly, as our reporting this week shows, the two men in question are convinced the decision is motivated by succession considerations and they are hopping mad.

It was against this backdrop that Mac Maharaj, the president’s emissary to the media, sent out a Press Freedom Day message complaining that it was terribly unfair to castigate Zuma for indecisiveness on Sicelo Shiceka, Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabine and Bheki Cele and then turn on a dime to attack his political motives when he acts boldly, as he has on Oilgate.

In fact, Zuma isn’t so much indecisive as unwilling to be drawn into battles that may not profit him. So Mac, we’re pleased that the report will be made public, but don’t expect us to turn a blind eye to your boss’s motives.

Read the second half of the editorial “No room for racism

For more news on the Oilgate saga click here:

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