When Humphrey Mmemezi, found guilty of contravening the provincial legislature’s code of conduct and ethics, resigned from his position as Gauteng housing minister last week, it came as something of a surprise.
Although members of the public frequently call for politicians accused of wrongdoing to resign from Parliament or the provincial legislature, they rarely do, and are just as rarely sacked.
Mmemezi allegedly stepped down as minister to avoid causing further embarrassment to local government, but he retains his seat in the legislature and is still the deputy secretary of the ANC in Gauteng. The ANC’s chief whip in Gauteng, Brian Hlongwa, said Mmemezi had done the "honourable thing".
Such displays of "honour" are not entirely unprecedented. It has happened before, and recently, even, but rarely enough that it's always surprising.
More often than not, "honour" is conspicuously absent. How do non-performing politicians and those accused of corruption manage to hold on to their jobs in the face of huge public opposition?
The law's the law
In part, it's because they're citizens too, and so are protected by the laws of the country.
Grant Masterson, manager of the African Peer Review Mechanism at the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, said that like any other employee, politicians in the civil service are protected by the Basic Conditions of Employment Act
"[President Jacob Zuma] found with Vusi Pikoli that it's not easy to fire someone," he said, adding, "It is valid that you can't just fire someone without due process, good cause and evidence."
Masterson also pointed out that politics and influence also play a role in whether a party takes stern action against its members. The defiant posturing by political figures in the middle of a scandal so often seen in the media sometimes sends the message to their political superiors that they are not prepared to fall quietly on their sword, he said.
Perhaps this provides some clue as to why Mmemezi has not been asked to vacate his seat in the legislature.
With the ANC's elective conference in Mangaung just months away, it might be imprudent for members of the Gauteng branches to get on the wrong side of a man who has powerful patrons within the party, among them Gauteng ANC chairperson Paul Mashatile. Offending the wrong people could see cadres bumped down the party lists at Mangaung.
Mmemezi isn’t going anywhere. As an elected official, he can’t be ousted from his seat. He must offer to resign or else have his membership in the party he represents terminated.
Party discipline is tricky and convoluted. It’s governed by the party’s constitution, which does not always provide the degree of clarity needed to effect swift justice.
ANC spokesperson Keith Khoza said that while the constitution of the ANC discusses issues of party discipline it does not specify what action should be taken if a member has been found guilty of committing an offence, such as corruption, in government. In such cases, the party relies on the rule of law. "We allow the law enforcement agencies to exercise their responsibility in dealing with issues of corruption or crimes that have been committed," he said.
But relying on the law will not bring about the swift justice that members of the public want to see when there are serious allegations of fraud.
The Public Service Commission, which monitors and evaluates administration, has in the past reported on the state’s poor capacity to investigate and resolve cases of alleged corruption internally and the reluctance in government to refer matters to the police for investigation.
It pointed out that even in cases where local and national government officials had been found guilty of fraud through internal processes, there is a tendency to simply give written warnings and not to take action against officials.
Mind the gap
Khoza said discussions are currently being held in the ANC on how to address the gap between allegations of corruption and conviction in a court of law.
One way may be through the formation of an “integrity committee,” he said, but this idea had yet to be finalised.
According to Nkenke Kekana, spokesperson for the ANC in Gauteng, the integrity committee is a resolution of the Limpopo conference, which elected Zuma almost four years ago. Gauteng is the first province to establish an integrity committee, and Mmemezi was the first ANC member it investigated.
Another idea, flighted at the ANC’s policy conference earlier this month, is that cadres facing charges of corruption be required to “step aside” from their public position until investigations had been completed.
This could help avoid controversies, such as that involving Northern Cape ANC chairperson, John Block. Block has been facing charges of fraud and corruption since 2010 in case that is expected to be resolved no earlier than next year.
Opposition parties are quick to point out the need for internal disciplinary efficiencies.
Lyndall Shope-Mafole, acting general secretary of the Congress of the People (Cope), said that the party had learned from the experiences of the ANC, and has tried hard to ensure that disciplinary issues are resolved as quickly as possible.
Shope-Mafole said that, as evidenced by the case of former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, ANC disciplinary issues can drag on for months and even then there is the possibility of appealing to the NEC, the Congress, and even going to court. "It doesn't work. It makes the organisation ungovernable," she said.
She said Cope’s disciplinary processes are run by an independent committee and all efforts are made to resolve disciplinary matters as quickly as possible, and that issues such as corruption, fraud and bringing the party into disrepute are taken very seriously.
The party, which has been riven by faction-fighting almost since its inception, famously expelled its co-founder Mbhazima Shilowa after an internal disciplinary committee found him guilty of corruption. This was followed by a flurry of expulsions, seen by some as evidence of a purge of those still loyal to Shilowa.
Quick isn't easy
The Democratic Alliance’s federal constitution allows for the immediate expulsion of a member convicted of a serious crime, such as corruption. Still, James Selfe, chairperson of the DA’s federal executive, said that in cases of misconduct it can sometimes be difficult to act with the firmness the party would like.
"The party must prove beyond reasonable doubt that a member is guilty, yet the party does not have powers of subpoena or investigation. Very often cases are dismissed, or not even brought, because it is impossible to climb this evidential mountain," he said.
Selfe also said that the fact that the decision to expel a member could be challenged in court also posed problems for a party wanting to rid itself of an embarrassing member.
In 2001, Peter Marais, who had been expelled from the DA and sacked from his position as mayor of Cape Town, was reinstated after winning a case in the Cape High Court. After a series of party-hopping moves Marais eventually joined Cope.
The party is now considering a discussion document which will lay out the procedure for dealing with poorly performing public representatives. Selfe said this "poor performance procedure" would identify ways in which the party could help members improve their performance. Those who don’t improve could be moved to other positions, or out of the party entirely.
Sending the wrong signals
Meanwhile Parliament is in the process of finalising a policy that will set more stringent requirements for MPs' attendance at Parliament, a move that could in future see lazy public officials axed.
National Assembly speaker Max Sisulu has said that if there are no consequences for non-attendance from Parliament itself, it would send the wrong signals to both society and MPs.
Moloto Mothapo, spokesperson for the ANC’s chief whip, said the policy would outline various punitive measures, from docking salaries to the loss of membership, for those who are absent from parliament without good cause.
"The rules will then decide after how long one has been absent from Parliament he or she ceases to be a member of Parliament," he said.
Whether improved parliamentary and party discipline can make a difference to the performance and conduct of elected officials remains to be seen. For now, as before, South African political parties are for the most part left scratching their head about what to do with the more obstinate of their political dead wood.
"To err is human; to forgive is divine," Hlongwa told the Gauteng ANC press conference last week.
It seems there is still much to divine about integrity in South African politics.