Praise Mandela, but don’t forget his failings

Edited extract from Chapter 5: The seeds that lay fallow

By the end of his term of office, Mandela had all but been canonised by South Africans, who saw in him the promise of racial reconciliation and the possibility of a new society built on the foundations of sensible, open governance. It helped that he was the darling of the world, fêted in its capitals by everyone from pop stars such as Bono to royalty.
When it came to Mandela, disbelief was suspended as the nation immersed itself in his glow.
One consequence of the growing Mandela mania was the suspension of a critical discourse about his term of office. The reality was that Mandela’s government, while making major strides in achieving legislative equality, reconciliation and the beginnings of a restructuring of the state around the needs of the majority, had struggled to deliver on the promise of ‘a better life for all’. The income gap between black and white South Africans remained as large as ever.
More disturbing was Mandela’s failure to turn the tide against post-apartheid corruption while it was still in its infancy. He was presented with several opportunities to do so, and, on each occasion, he allowed the ANC’s worst instincts to rule over the intention of the new dispensation, expressed in the preamble to the Constitution, to usher in a free and open society.
One golden opportunity had presented itself when his health minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, then still married to Jacob Zuma, had become embroiled in the first major scandal of the post-apartheid era. This concerned the financing of the musical Sarafina II, a sequel to Sarafina!, which composer-director Mbongeni Ngema had successfully taken to Broadway. Dlamini-Zuma was the driving force behind Sarafina II, and the maladministration of this project was to become the first serious showdown between parliament and the executive. It is worth revisiting the scandal to understand where Mandela erred.
During 1995, Dlamini-Zuma had the idea of staging Sarafina II in an effort to improve awareness of HIV/Aids. She discussed the idea with the director of the health department’s HIV/Aids and STD programme, Abdool Karim. In June 1995, Dlamini-Zuma and Karim met with Ngema in Durban to discuss the feasibility of putting the play on. ‘Mr Ngema,’ Public Protector Selby Baqwa would later write in his report on the controversy, ‘was approached to give his views as a prominent theatrical personality.’
Ngema was told that the play would be expected to travel to both urban and rural areas throughout South Africa. He was asked what he thought such a production would cost. Ngema gave ‘an off the cuff estimate of about R800 000’. After the meeting, Dlamini-Zuma and Karim agreed the play would be launched at the commemoration of World Aids Day on 1 December of that year. Dlamini-Zuma left it to Karim and her director-general, Olive Shisana, to work out what needed to be done to get the production off the ground. They believed that the production would cost around R5 million in total. Albert Badenhorst, chief director of a division of the health bureaucracy called departmental support services, was given the task of implementing the idea.
On 21 July, the department swung into action, and three parties – Opera Africa, PACT Windybrow Centre for the Arts and Ngema’s Committed Artists – were invited to tender.
Ngema’s tender was for an amount of just over R14 million. Opera Africa said it could do the play for R600 000. Sandra de Villiers of Opera Africa would later tell the Public Protector that she had been phoned by an official and told: ‘Please courier it because you are jeopardising the whole legality of the thing if your tender is not in.’ A Mr Chaleka of PACT Windybrow said he was asked to fill in the forms and return them within 24 hours. ‘This gave Mr Chaleka the impression that he was just being used as a statistic,’ the Public Protector would say in his report.
Karim reviewed the two applications on 4 August and recommended that Ngema’s Committed Artists be given the tender. Four days later, the department’s tender committee sat to review the applications. It had serious concerns about Ngema’s because it included more than R1 million for a truck, more money for a new luxury bus and R600 000 – ironically, the full amount of the competing tender – for equipment. The committee was concerned that these items ‘should have formed part of the infrastructure, which a contractor should have had in terms of the tender specifications’.
Despite the committee’s failure to approve the tender, Badenhorst went ahead on the same day and instructed the head of the department’s legal section to draw up a contract between it and Ngema’s company. ‘He was instructed to do it the same day because it was urgent.’ Ngema was immediately paid R3 million, over the objections of the department’s director of provisioning, GM Labuschagne.
The contract with Committed Artists was signed on 10 August Eight days later, Shisana set out to Badenhorst her concerns about the awarding of the tender, and Karim wrote to Dlamini-Zuma expressing concern that the contract had gone to a company that did not comply with the tender specifications and did not have the infrastructure to put on the play. Baqwa said in his report: ‘Further, the concern expressed by both the director and the director-general was about the fact that the contract had been signed for an amount in excess of R14 million whereas the explanation had been that there would be a ceiling of R5 million to the contractual amount.’
These concerns were brushed aside and the first production of Sarafina II took place on schedule on World Aids Day.
No sooner had the production got under way than questions were raised about the manner in which the play had been solicited and financed. The developing scandal soon dominated the news in South Africa. Questions were raised about why Dlamini-Zuma’s department had disregarded the advice of its own tender committee, and that of other senior officials, and awarded the contract to Ngema. Why had Badenhorst, a civil servant of long standing, bent the rules in so determined a manner? More than that, some of the money was believed to have gone missing. The department had claimed that the European Union was partly funding the production, but this proved to be false.
The stage had been set for a showdown between the South Africa’s newly minted organs of accountability and the executive. ANC MP Manto Tshabalala-Msimang chaired parliament’s portfolio committee on health. She called Dlamini-Zuma and Shisana to appear before her committee in February 1996 to account for the funding scandal. Dlamini-Zuma and Shisana were put through the mill; they were asked to explain the tender process in detail and even how they intended addressing criticisms of the play’s content.
Dlamini-Zuma backed down and issued a contrite statement in which she said the contract would be cancelled and the money recouped. But she sparked a new controversy when she said that an anonymous donor had come forward to pay for the production. It turned out that there was no such donor and that government would have to pay.
The scandal played prominently in the world press. For the first time, the ‘rainbow nation’ had failed to live up to its promise. In the words of The New York Times’ Suzanne Daley: ‘But perhaps most disturbing to many South Africans is that so far not a head has rolled. Not even a reprimand has been issued, a situation that has prompted much talk about the state of accountability in the new South Africa. Far from condemning the debacle, officials of the African National Congress have fiercely defended the Health Commissioner [sic], Dr Nkosazana Zuma. President Nelson Mandela recently lashed out at the news media for “creating such an uproar” and said Dr Zuma should be left alone to do her job.’
It was a sobering moment for parliament. The belief that the new order meant that the executive would account to elected MPs had been dealt a major blow. When the chips were down, Mandela came down on the side of his minister, who suffered no consequences other than the embarrassment that resulted from the media ‘creating such an uproar’.
The second golden opportunity to turn the tide of corruption presented itself when Allan Boesak, the anti-apartheid cleric who, in the 1980s, had rallied support behind the UDF with his courageous political sermons, fell foul of the law.
By 1994, Boesak was a key member of the ANC leadership, which was involved in its most bitter election tussle, with the National Party in the Western Cape. The battle over what came to be described as ‘the conservative coloured vote’ was intense, more so because it was fought against the party of apartheid. With his high profile in the church and his strong anti-apartheid credentials, Boesak was essential to the ANC’s electoral hopes.
But he was about to become the subject of a major corruption scandal. The Danish aid agency Dan Church Aid had been investigating the whereabouts of a large part of a US$1 million donation it had made to Boesak’s Foundation for Peace and Justice in 1985. More questions were raised about the abuse of money donated by Coca-Cola, and by the US singer Paul Simon, who had toured South Africa in 1992.
Mandela’s government stood behind Boesak. Incredibly, Mbeki conducted his own investigation, which cleared Boesak. The report was described by the donors as ‘ludicrous’.
In December 1996, Boesak was charged with misappropriating more than US$500 000 from aid organisations. His return from Berkeley, California, to face the music was to become one of the defining moments of the new South Africa. Arriving at Cape Town’s international airport on 17 March 1997, he was carried on the shoulders of a thousand ANC supporters. Heading the welcoming party was none other than the Minister of Justice, Dullah Omar, who made it clear that he was present with Mandela’s blessing: ‘Comrade President said to me: “Dullah, you’re going to the airport,”’ he said.
The following day, Boesak appeared in court on nine counts of fraud and 21 charges of theft. He rose to the podium to deliver one of his trademark speeches. This time, he was not attacking apartheid but defending himself against corruption: ‘I have come back to this country, my country, my home, because I am not afraid to face those who have charged me; because I am, as they know, totally innocent of the charges they have levelled against me.’ It was clear that party loyalty stood above all else, including, in this case, the theft of funds intended for the fight against apartheid.
The justification for the party’s stance was wafer thin. One of Mandela’s more considered ministers, Mohammed Valli Moosa, expressed this ‘struggle solidarity’ approach to interviewer Padraig O’Malley in these terms: “What would the critics have said had Dullah Omar not been the Minister of Justice? The general sentiment in the ANC is that one should value contributions that people have made in the course of the struggle. One should always value that … All he has said is that Allan Boesak is one of us. He’s been away, he’s come back and we would like to express our solidarity with him. I think it’s just a kind of warmth which we’re all about.”
In March 1999, Boesak was convicted on three counts of theft and one of fraud. He served a year in jail and would later be formally pardoned by President Mbeki.
While Mandela’s direct influence on day-to-day governance waned in the later years of his presidency, he was very much in charge when the Sarafina II and Boesak controversies erupted. It was his decision, as head of government, to protect Dlamini-Zuma against the accountability that some in parliament were demanding. His failure to act – possibly out of loyalty, possibly out of pique at being criticised by what was then a white-led opposition – sent a clear signal to the executive: They, and not parliament, held the whip. While there is no suggestion that Dlamini-Zuma enriched herself, she did oversee the fast-and-loose expenditure of millions of rands on an improper tender in her haste to make an impression on World Aids Day. Others with more selfish motives would do more damage in the years to come.
The message to those who saw the opportunity for self-enrichment through the abuse of government finances was clear: you could get away with it if you were politically connected.
In Boesak’s case, the message was different, but equally damaging. If someone could be forgiven by the party for enriching themselves on funds intended for the fight against apartheid, it was clear that the fight against corruption would not become a cornerstone of the new order.
It was as if open season had been declared. Soon the abuse of state resources for personal gain would take on an entirely new dimension as so-called tenderpreneurs rode the party to billions in riches. The hyenas waiting to feed on whatever carrion might be dislodged by the transition had been lurking in the background; now they would emerge from the shadows.

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