President Jacob Zuma acted to protect South Africa’s integrity in the firing of ministers Sicelo Shiceka and Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, and suspension of Police Commissioner General Bheki Cele, the president’s spokesperson Mac Maharaj said on Monday after a dramatic cabinet reshuffle.
“It is the prerogative of the president to amend his executive and launch judicial inquiries, and he doesn’t always give reasons but I assure you it is always with the best interests of South Africa in mind,” Maharaj told reporters after the announcement at the Union Buildings in Pretoria on Monday.
Shiceka and Mahlangu-Nkabinde were relieved of their duties and Cele was suspended following intense public scrutiny after damning reports by Public Protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela into several actions the ministers undertook while in office.
Former minister of public works Mahlangu-Nkabinde and General Cele were acted upon following Madonsela’s double-barrelled report entitled: Against the rules and Against the rules too, which exposed extensive corruption and maladministration in the processing of leasing deals for office space to be used by the South African Police Service (SAPS).
Shiceka, now ex-minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, came under fire for misusing state funds, which included undertaking a trip to Switzerland to visit a former girlfriend convicted of drug trafficking, as confirmed in a report released by Madonsela in September.
Cele was a little luckier than the axed ministers, as he will enjoy full benefits and salary during his suspension, while an inquiry into his actions in relation to the police leasing scandal is undertaken.
‘Good move, Zuma’
Even one of Zuma’s greatest adversaries, president of the Democratic Alliance Helen Zille, welcomed his moves, saying it was “better late than never”.
“The public protector urged the president to take strong action against those involved in the SAPS lease deals as well as Minister Shiceka for his abuse of public money. We applaud the president for reaffirming his government’s commitment to the role of the public protector and other Chapter Nine institutions. Accountability is critical to making democracy work. If ministers abuse their power, they must be fired,” Zille said via a statement.
The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Sacci) also commended Zuma in a statement.
“It is important that corruption on all levels of government is squashed regardless of the seniority of the official involved. Corruption stifles economic activity, is an abuse of taxpayer funds and raises the cost of doing business, which is particularly discouraging to SMEs. It is imperative that President Zuma continues to implement a consistent policy of fighting corruption within his administration,” Sacci said.
As part of a resultant cabinet reshuffle by Zuma, Thulas Nxesi, who was deputy minister for rural development, replaces Mahlangu-Nkabinde, and Shiceka’s portfolio has been taken over by former minister of public service and administration Richard Baloyi.
Deputy minister in the presidency Dina Pule has been elevated to the communications minister as Roy Padayachie moves to Baloyi’s portfolio.
Deputy communications minister Obed Baphela moves into Pule’s role, while ANC MP Thembisa Ndabeni replaces Baphela.
Elsewhere, public works deputy minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu moves to the same position in the ministry of Women, Children and Persons with disabilities and ANC MP Lechesa Tsenoli has been named deputy minister of rural development.
Former Constitutional Court judge Yvonne Mokgoro, who will be assisted by advocates Anthea Platt and Terry Motau, will head up the Cele investigation — which has no stipulated timeframe.
Major General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi has been named as acting Police commissioner.
The decision follows months of speculation over what action Zuma might take against the ministers and commissioner.
Arms deal inquiry terms
The surprises didn’t stop there as the suspension and dismissals announcement was coupled with the unveiling of the legal team leading the commission of inquiry into the Strategic Defence Procurement Package — commonly known as the Arms Deal.
Judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal Judge Willie Seriti will lead the inquiry and is joined in the investigation by deputy judge president of the North Gauteng High Court Willem van der Merwe and North Gauteng High Court Judge Francis Legodi.
Zuma stated the inquiry will be undertaken over a period of two years and exact terms of reference will be laid out on Tuesday.
While not having any direct issue with the three judges appointed to the inquiry, constitutional law expert Professor Pierre de Vos conceded it could be “problematic” having judges involved in other roles while investigating the arms deal.
“Having a panel of three sitting judges involved in such a potentially politically explosive matter might prove to become an issue. On the one hand judges are perceived to be more trustworthy than most but if it is good thing for the judiciary — I am not so sure. Nevertheless, it was ruled in the Constitutional Court in the matter involving the Heath Commission, that judges should not be” involved in politically charged cases, De Vos said.