An angry public protector has advised the minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, to learn from the example of a Swedish politician who resigned after using state money to buy Toblerone chocolates "without being investigated by a public protector".
In a wide-ranging interview, Joemat-Pettersson told the Mail & Guardian last week that she had lost respect for the office of the public protector after she found herself the subject of an investigation by Thuli Madonsela following a costly trip to Sweden in 2010.
"This is an important institution," the minister said. "I was actually quite sad with the manner in which the staff of the public protector dealt with my investigation. An institution that I had respect for, I have now actually lost respect for. There is no right or wrong. I have just lost respect for it."
But, through her spokesperson, Kgalalelo Masibi, the public protector shot back, saying she was "shocked at the remarks made by the minister, because the investigation report speaks for itself".
"She says the minister should learn from the Swedish minister who resigned after using state money to buy Toblerone chocolate – without being investigated by a public protector," said Masibi, before adding that the public protector also believes "the minister is entitled to her opinion".
Madonsela found in her report, titled "Costly moves", that Joemat-Pettersson should repay R151 878, which she incurred when she went to Sweden on business, combined it with a holiday, and was urgently recalled back to work by the presidency in 2010. The money was spent on return flights for her two children and their au pair from Sweden in early 2010.
"Minister Joemat-Pettersson's justification that she was advised by her chief of staff that the department had to pay as she was recalled by the president at short notice, is upheld," the public protector's report stated. "However, the fact that the department was not supposed to incur such costs remains a reality and the amount paid constitutes fruitless and wasteful expenditure, was unlawful and an act of maladministration by the department," the report stated.
'I came back to sort it out'
Joemat-Pettersson feels she was given a raw deal in the report.
"This matter had to do with fresh-food products and I came back to sort it out. Because it was [about] fresh-food products, you can't say that you will come back in a week and manage it. On the public protector's part, I do not think the way [the outcome] was phrased was a true reflection of what actually happened. It created the perception that my children went on a free holiday at the state's expense, which is not so. My children had their own tickets and I am now paying double for tickets I have already paid for. I could go to court and challenge the findings, but again, my family would suffer."
In her report, Madonsela also examined Joemat-Pettersson's stays at a guesthouse and a luxury hotel, which she said she resorted to as the department of public works had not provided her with official accommodation. Her conduct was found not to have constituted a violation of the executive ethics code, but she was rapped over the knuckles.
"Minister Joemat-Pettersson's defence of ignorance of the costs involved, though accepted, is a cause for serious concern as she displayed a blank-cheque attitude towards public funds," the public protector's report found.
The public protector is still investigating another complaint against Joemat-Pettersson regarding a stalled tender for a company to manage her department's fishing and research fleet of vessels.
The beleaguered minister is furious at what she sees as incessant attacks on her character from a number of quarters, but she is not about to quit her job.
"I have absolutely no intention of quitting my job," said the ANC politician in the interview with the M&G at Kalk Bay harbour in Cape Town.
"I think we have never performed better than we are now. The [fishing] rights allocation process will be completed and we will empower communities and SMEs [small and medium enterprises]," Joematt-Pettersson said.
"When we set out the priorities for the department, the most important was to fight corruption in this sector and in this industry. And we are on top of it. We have been vindicated in so many instances."
Probably her fiercest opponent, the Democratic Alliance spokesperson on fisheries, Pieter van Dalen, is a former police detective who believes the minister was on the brink of being fired by President Jacob Zuma.
Word is out that Joemat-Pettersson donated R50-million to the ANC from the inheritance she was left by her late husband, said Van Dalen. This, he alleged, would explain her survival after what he describes as "her epic failures" in fisheries.
"Money talks. So there was a negotiated settlement. Rob Davies [the minister of trade and industry] would take over some of her functions and she would be allowed to finish her term graciously," Van Dalen claimed. "It is generally accepted among officials that they answer to two ministers. It is also accepted that Tina is not returning next term or she will be given something she cannot break."
An exasperated Joemat-Pettersson said she was aware of the allegations made by Van Dalen and insisted they could not be further from the truth.
'I wish I had money'
Sipping tea in the Harbour House restaurant, which has magnificent views of False Bay and the mountains, she shrugged off the allegation that she might have made a R50-million donation to the ANC.
"I wish I had the money. If I had R50-million to donate to the ANC, I would. I really wish I had that amount of money to throw around," she said, without smiling. "It is bizarre. It is completely ludicrous. It is so far-fetched, they don't even realise how ridiculous it is."
In regard to the accusations about incompetence, Joemat-Pettersson said that she worked with other ministers in a cluster and that an integrated approach to delivery had been there from the start in her varied portfolios.
"We have never worked in silos. I do not set tariffs for imports and exports. The [government's] chicken tariffs are set by Minister Davies. It is not my job. I can fight corruption, but I am not a law-enforcement agency. So, if I work with Sars [the South African Revenue Services] and the SAPS [the South African Police Service], it does not mean I am taking over the job of Minister [Nathi] Mthethwa.
"It is completely bizarre. It is just absolutely baseless. But it is also undermining the intelligence of the public to think that it will actually believe such stories."
'If I could turn back the wheel'
There are moments, she said, when she regretted fighting corruption in her departments, which have been beset with staffing problems.
"If I could turn back the wheel, I wonder if I would have done it, in hindsight, after what I have been through. I doubt whether I would have done it," she mused.
"It is easy to say fight corruption, but when you fight big companies, you have to think twice before you really want to fight corruption. The toll it has taken on my family, on my children, the price has been high. But I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of this country.
"The foundation of the ANC is what builds your character. If you adhere to the tenets and principles of the ANC, then you have a responsibility to protect what belongs to all the people of this country."
Joemat-Pettersson is particularly excited by the decision of the United States District Court in New York to award South Africa about R294-million following the unlawful harvesting of South African fish by a syndicate, describing it as a triumph for the country.
Arnold Bengis, one of the accused, was the managing director of Hout Bay Fishing Industries, and Joemat-Pettersson said her department had worked with the Hawks and conducted search and seizure raids on the company's premises.
"We pushed [the case] to its conclusion, or else it would just be somewhere gathering dust on a shelf. If we hadn't placed emphasis on this case, and if we hadn't started enquiring about what was going on, there would have been no sense of urgency to complete the matter."
Joemat-Pettersson is currently reading journalist Michela Wrong's book It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower. It is, she said, a textbook case of how whistle-blowers are themselves placed under intense scrutiny.
"The intention is to get you to walk away," she said. "I've faced stacks of accusations. To fight corruption in the public service or amongst politicians, you have an immediate audience. But if you fight big corporations, you are fighting big money."