Civil society rides to the rescue

The deepening crisis surrounding the reinstatement of crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli and the dropping of murder and corruption charges against him has one positive dimension – it highlights the growing role of civil society activists in shaping South Africa’s governance agenda.

This week, the civil society group Freedom Under Law intervened in the Mdluli affair by lodging an urgent high court application for the policeman to be suspended pending a full judicial review of the decisions leading to his reinstatement in March this year.

As we report this week, the group’s court papers include a report by the chief investigator into the Mdluli affair that sheds lurid light on rampant interference in the case by police high-ups and politicians, who intended to have serious charges against Mdluli withdrawn.

The implications could not be more serious: once again the rule of law is being subverted for factional advantage, presumably on the instructions of leaders much higher up the political food chain. The court papers also contain the chief investigator’s deeply alarming claim that a recent Sunday newspaper report was written by journalists on the crime intelligence payroll with the aim of diverting attention from the Mdluli matter.

Whatever the truth – and the Mail & Guardian believes the report in question was based on credible evidence – it appears that the media is now being sucked into the savage struggle for control of the state security services.

Stiffening resistance
But our story also reveals the cheering news that acting national police commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi is now moving to resuspend Mdluli, in a move that may indicate stiffening resistance among certain senior officers to political meddling in the case. Mkhwanazi may himself be driven by factional motives – anything is possible in the current hall of mirrors.

But it is also quite likely that the commissioner is reacting to Freedom Under Law’s application and is moving to pre-empt a further set of potentially embarrassing revelations in the courts.

If so, it would not be the first time that civil society mobilisation and activism – often using the judicial system – has forced the hands of the authorities in the recent past. Building on the legacy of the apartheid era, Treatment Action Campaign activists set the trend in the late 1990s by mounting a successful court challenge to Thabo Mbeki’s obscurantist policies on HIV/Aids. Successive ANC concessions on the secrecy Bill have also clearly been influenced by the grassroots mobilisation of the Right to Know Campaign.

The Machiavellian machinations of certain of our leaders, principally aimed at ensuring their continued hold on power, pose a grave threat to our democratic order. But offering hope amid the gathering gloom is the emergence of an active citizenry.

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