Public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, the new guardian of the state capture report, has moved swiftly to add her personal touch to her Pretoria offices.
Among a raft of changes communicated to staff during her first week in office, was an instruction for the TV news feed to be changed from eNCA to the Gupta-owned ANN7.
A senior official who asked not to be identified explained: “She told the CEO she wants the TV channels changed to ANN7 and this was communicated to the IT [people] who were able to change it.
“The CEO told the guys in IT to change it as per the public protector’s instruction. It’s not like anyone will die if it’s changed back, but she asked that it be changed.”
The three-storey building housing the public protector’s office has several TVs, allowing just a single feed; until Tuesday it was usually tuned into eNCA, the official said this week.
However innocent seeming, this is ironic because ANN7 is owned by the Gupta family, central characters in the investigation into state capture that was conducted by Mkhwebane’s predecessor, advocate Thuli Madonsela. The release of Madonsela’s highly anticipated report was blocked last Friday when President Jacob Zuma and Cabinet minister Des van Rooyen rushed to court seeking urgent interdicts.
Mkhwebane’s conduct will come under scrutiny because of concerns she may not have the appetite for politically sensitive investigations.
Her first real test is how big a fight she puts up when she submits her responding affidavit to the interdict applications.
The change of guard at the chapter nine institution also comes amid a war between the minister of finance, Pravin Gordhan, the national director of public prosecutions Shaun Abrahams, the Hawks and the South African Revenue Service (Sars).
Mkhwebane confirmed having asked why all the TVs in the building were tuned into eNCA, but she said this was because she wanted staff to be alert to the need for them to monitor all news channels and to allow for a “broader perspective”. “If for example we need to know about international news we may switch to CNN,” Mkhwebane said.
During her first week in office, Mkhwebane also asked for the locks on her office door be changed, for “security reasons”.
She said the days of sensational headlines, a reference to the quirky labels for investigative reports, would be history – Madonsela often delighted South Africans with titles like Derailed for a report into the Passenger Rail Agency (Prasa) and Secure in Comfort, the label given to the report into the cost of state-funded upgrades at President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead. Mkhwebane told the Mail & Guardian that such titles made it difficult to search for specific reports.
This would now change to avoid “tension” with government, Mkhwebane told the media during an extended briefing yesterday.
And she indicated her dislike for the phrase “state capture” which she said she liked no more than some MPs did.
Yesterday, she said the public protector’s office needed to be clear about what “improper conduct” was and what “undue influence” meant.
Some staff members have expressed concern that Mkhwebane appears to be in a rush to remove traces of Madonsela’s tenure instead of “complementing” her legacy.
The senior official added “People are perturbed and some are already looking for new jobs.”
“People should give me an opportunity to do my job, it’s unfair to get critical after just three days. I am not rushing things,” Mkhwebane, who described herself as apolitical, added: “You don’t protect government, but you protect the state, it’s sovereignty and the law.”
Another staff member said Mkhwebane’s arrival had brought a level of “calmness” to the office.
After having raised eyebrows for criticising Madonsela’s practices, Mkhwebane praised Madonsela, saying she had done her job without “fear or favour”.
Earlier in the week she told Parliament her time at the State Security Agency had made her realise it was unwise to use foreign funding to help cover budget shortfalls. This was after Madonsela had accepted a $500-million donation from USAID for staff training.
The money was in fact a donation to the South African government, dispersed to the justice department; a portion of it was allocated to the public protector’s office, but it is yet to be paid over, the M&G has ascertained.
Some Zuma supporters this week praised her for introducing prompt changes. A prominent ANC member who is also a senior government official said this included foreign funding due to the need for independence in the public protector’s office.
“We have consistently said a due process must unfold and no court of public opinion must be allowed to defocus us,” the official said.
For now the state capture report is securely held by Mkhwebane’s office pending the High Court interdict applications to be heard on November 1.
President Zuma was first to file an application to block Madonsela from releasing the report following her investigation into allegations involving his family, the Guptas and alleged attempts by them to influence government.
The probe covered, among other things, allegations that the Gupta family had acquired power to hire and fire senior people in government to advance their business interest.
The Guptas have consistently denied any wrongdoing but claims by former government spokesperson Themba Maseko and MP Vytjie Mentor suggest otherwise.
Furthermore, Madonsela’s office scrutinised the appointment of van Rooyen as the finance minister, a position he held for just four days in December after Zuma was forced to move him following a public outcry over the removal of Nhlanhla Nene.
Last weekend, details of the extent of the wealth of the Gupta empire through an affidavit filed by Gordhan emerged. He seeks a declaratory order confirming he cannot intervene in a dispute between Gupta-owned Oakbay Investments and four major banks that shut their accounts earlier this year.
Court papers contained a certificate from the Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC) showing several “suspicious” transactions among some R6.8-billion worth of transactions.
Despite the Guptas initially welcoming the minister’s court bid as it gave them a chance to clear their name, this position changed later. Their lawyer, Gert van der Merwe, said they will oppose Gordhan’s court bid and have roped in advocate Cedric Puckrin SC, as they have 15 court days to file answering papers.
Van der Merwe warned there may be a delay as the Guptas’ legal team needed to retrieve information from banks, FIC and National Treasury.
Van der Merwe said they have also written to Mkhwebane, assuring her of the Guptas’ willingness to assist her in the state capture investigation. “I said we are still willing to tender evidence in the matter. We understand she is under severe pressure, but if she needs us, we’ll avail ourselves.”
Van der Merwe said the Gupta family is not worried about the origins and status of various payments labelled by the FIC as “suspicious”.
“It was misleading to say the payments are ‘dubious’. We can account for every move,” he added.
Meanwhile Gordhan once again rejected NPA head Shaun Abrahams’s offer to make formal representation this week. The move by Abrahams is generally viewed as him back-pedalling after realising his plan to send Gordhan into court to answer to the flimsy case against him, has backfired.
Gordhan is to appear in court on November 2 in connection with a fraud charge that relates to him having approved a request for early retirement for former Sars deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay.
No sooner had Abrahams done this, senior current and former politicians across the political spectrum announced they would be at court to support Gordhan.
Such a move will leave both Abrahams and Zuma red-faced as it would reveal a powerful public and organised lobby against Zuma and anyone perceived to bend the rules in the quest to insulate the president.
Member of the ANC provincial executive committee in the Eastern Cape, Andile Lungisa, said he didn’t understand why people were raising concerns with the Guptas’ influence in ministers’ appointments, claiming nothing was said when CEOs of banks influenced the reappointment of Gordhan as finance minister.
“Why do we have a country of double standards? If CEOs of banks lobby, no one says anything. Why treat the Guptas differently? We cannot say because we don’t like your surname we will treat you differently. I support that we must not be influenced. The media must do the same for those who lobbied for minister of finance. Why isn’t that not state capture? We can’t have narrow approach to issues,” he said.