/ 5 December 2013

Nkandla report: Madonsela tries to counter politics with logic

Public protector Thuli Madonsela.
Public protector Thuli Madonsela.

Perhaps before Christmas, but more realistically around mid-January, her final report on Nkandla will be published, public protector Thuli Madonsela said on Wednesday. She is not expecting it to be a particularly big deal.

"I also want to confirm again to this nation that our reports are simple documents that talk to what happened, what should have happened, is there discrepancy, can we call it maladministration, and if we call it maladministration, how are we going to fix the damage that was done by that maladministration," she said.

Translation: the Nkandla report can find neither for nor against President Jacob Zuma.

She also noted that, as an ombud, her power lies in persuasion. "We don't even have the power to send the sheriff," she said.

Translation: the public protector makes findings, and even recommendations, but other organs and agencies must implement them. So should she find that, say, the president owes the country R20-million, she can say so – but somebody else will have to fetch it from him.

Hoping for the best
Hers gives the appearance of being a cultured naivety. At every turn Madonsela expects the best from people and institutions. She hoped the media "had bought into doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do", she said on her (shattered) hope that her office's leaked provisional report would not be published. Why would an organisation such as the ANC seemingly be attacking her office? Because "it is a fast-paced world. People tend to attack first and find the information afterwards."

Madonsela also reaches for logic to counter political argument and assumes that everyone else will do the same. Reacting to ANC accusations that her office was responsible for leaking recent reports, she pointed out that there would be no benefit for anyone in her office to leak a report, thus there is no motive, and therefore it is implausible that her office is the source of the leaks.

When she was told, shortly after her media briefing, that the ANC issued a statement effectively reiterating the same accusation, she seemed mildly puzzled.

Belief in people's better nature, a reliance on logic, and a limited expectation of the impact of her work are probably all part of a healthy paradigm for the public protector to adopt. But that is a worldview that is going to come under some rather serious pressure once the Nkandla report is released, no matter when that is, and no matter what it says. 

The ANC has already proven that it is willing to wildly misinterpret Madonsela's statements, and question her integrity. The nature of the Nkandla debacle means the final report will have to be critical of several ANC leaders (at the very least, Cabinet members), so the party will surely go on the offensive.

Election manna
The Democratic Alliance, and to a lesser extent other opposition parties, have made it clear that Nkandla is to them election manna from scandal heaven. Madonsela's final report may not have anything as direct as a guilty finding against Zuma, but it will be trumpeted as such.

But it will not only be political parties re-interpreting and mis-interpreting the report. As contentious as some of her previous findings have been, no investigation by Madonsela has ever attracted as much public attention as Nkandla. None has had such a rich and deep history, and so much evidence readily available to anyone who cares to look. The report will be closely scrutinised, analysed, and discussed. Add preconceptions and bias and there will be a dizzying mixture of praise and criticism spread across everything from phone-in radio shows to social media.

Christmas, or more realistically mid-January, is not going to be a happy time for someone who believes that logic can trump politics, that people will do what is right, and that a report is just a report.