“It was … appalling.” Contemplating Tuesday’s impeachment proceedings in Parliament, Mavuso Msimang is briefly silent. “I don’t have strong enough words to describe it. It’s actually shameful. To see my party, the ANC, vigorously vote against the Constitution was a matter of great, great depression.”
When Msimang speaks of the ANC as “my party”, he has more right than most to the use of the possessive adjective. Politically active since 1960, he acted as secretary to Oliver Tambo and took on a top leadership role in Umkhonto weSizwe in exile.
Post-liberation, Msimang has played some of the most important behind-the-scenes roles in South African institutions, while maintaining a much lower profile than some of his flashier counterparts.
As director-general, he was largely responsible for the turnaround of the ailing department of home affairs, where insiders say erstwhile minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was unduly credited with success that should rightfully be attributed to Msimang.
Previously, he had achieved similar progress at SA Tourism, SanParks, and the State Information Technology Agency.
Msimang, now 74, is the father of three daughters. One of them, Sisonke Msimang, a prominent human rights activist and writer, says she respects him most for his consistency: “He understood what it meant to be admired by little girls, and he has never let us down.”
Some of his former political comrades may feel differently. Msimang is an old-school ANC grandee who now faces the task of squaring up to the ruling party in his new role as chair of Corruption Watch SA.
On Wednesday, he could be found with other party veterans and civil society doyens hosting a press conference on the steps of the Constitutional Court to announce planned mass action in the wake of President Jacob Zuma’s failure to resign.
Msimang clarifies that he was there with three hats on: “As a South African, in my capacity as an ANC person, and as a representative of Corruption Watch.”
Msimang takes up his role at Corruption Watch at a time when the body is likely to be kept very busy with matters extending far beyond the Nkandla saga.
In addition to dealing with routine corruption complaints, of which the nongovernmental organisation received 2 382 in 2015, it is launching a campaign urging greater transparency in the appointment of the next public protector – a position which becomes vacant again in October.
Then there’s the small matter of the Panama Papers leak, which has seen several South African companies and Zuma’s nephew Khulubuse Zuma implicated in a far-reaching tax-avoidance scandal.
Although discussions of corruption in South Africa often focus exclusively on government, Msimang says the private sector is not immune from scrutiny either.
“The private sector is doing a little better than the public sector simply because you have shareholders there,” he says. Msimang cites the establishment of whistle-blower systems in companies as encouraging evidence that corruption is being taken increasingly seriously.
He singles out the construction industry for particular criticism, however. “Construction companies took billions from taxpayers when they colluded to establish a benchmark of profits during the World Cup. People who have been given trust about money that belongs to the public, owe it to the public to keep those funds safe.”
It is the effect of corruption on the average South African that Msimang says will be his focus.
It’s inevitable that his new role will require Msimang to lock horns with the political party to which he has devoted much of his life. For one thing, Corruption Watch became a friend of the court in the Constitutional Court proceedings on Nkandla. Msimang says he retains cordial relations with many of his former colleagues, however.
‘With some we are not on good terms,” he laughs. “Some said how could I say these things publicly? I say: ‘But you are acting out in public!’”
Msimang says he still has a personal relationship with Zuma, although he imagines that his recent outspoken criticism of the president “would upset him”. When the two encounter each other in public, though, Msimang still receives a warm welcome. “[Zuma] is a very chatty person. A very amiable person. He’ll stop what he’s doing to talk to a friend.”
But attempts to secure the ear of the president to talk more seriously have not met with success. Msimang says he has been trying for some time, together with a group of like-minded veterans, to meet the leadership of the ANC to voice their concerns. That they have failed to secure a meeting he ascribes – perhaps charitably – to ANC top brass being “very busy”.
Was there a sense of anger or hurt that time could not be found to hear the voices of old comrades? “No, no. Just frustration,” he says.
Msimang describes his tipping-point with the Nkandla saga as coming just after Zuma received the public protector’s report on the matter of the upgrades.
“The president had, upon receiving the report, said that he would initiate other processes, which we thought were fine and constitutional. But the very following day he said in Soweto that he wasn’t going to pay for anything. So I thought no, but this is not serious! How does this leader of ours treat the public with such disrespect?”
The former chief executive of the State Information Technology Agency has personal experience with the issue of security upgrades to private residences. While heading up the agency, he was informed that it was necessary to construct a fence around his property in Midrand.
“They told me I needed it because there had been a police assessment, and they had to protect me. When I asked if I should pay, people said: ‘No, no, no!’”
Later in the year, however, the agency’s auditors had a different story for Msimang. “They said, no no, you should pay! I then paid. I didn’t ask for that fence, but when I was asked to pay, I paid.” He adds with a chuckle: “I continue to live in the security and comfort of that residence.”
Msimang spoke to the Mail & Guardian while he was on his way to a branch meeting of the ANC in Liliesleaf on Wednesday evening. There, he reportedly reiterated his call for Zuma’s ousting and rejected the idea that to do so was to play into the hands of opposition parties.
Despite his misgivings with the current party leadership, however, Msimang had earlier dismissed the idea of leaving the ANC. “No, no, not at all. I would never join another party. I would like the people no longer serving the objectives of the ANC to leave the party. Once they do that, we’ll get back our good old ANC.”