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Sunday Times STLive By unknown, 2009-09-01

It is time to start afresh



WITHIN the first five years of our democracy, a clique coalesced, developed ambitions and set themselves up as king-makers in our country's politics and business.

Their game plan was to concentrate and perpetuate power in their hands using our Constitution and democracy as a cover. A critical element for achieving their objectives was the manipulation of state institutions.

Without the transcripts of the intercepted phone calls to and from Leonard McCarthy, then head of the Scorpions, this proposition would have been dismissed as the imaginings of a conspiracy theorist.

The abuses were there for all to see but we did not connect the dots. For starters, let us consider a cluster of events:

ý In April 2001 the then minister of safety and security, the late Steve Tshwete, announced that Cyril Ramaphosa, Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale were involved in a conspiracy to overthrow president Thabo Mbeki.

In the wake of these allegations Ramaphosa, Phosa and Sexwale were boxed into a space where they had to publicly disavow having presidential ambitions. Within weeks and seemingly for no reason, Jacob Zuma, the then deputy president, issued a statement announcing that he harboured no presidential ambitions.

At one stroke, four potential contenders to succeed Mbeki were out of the reckoning. Mbeki's hold on power was cemented within two-and-a-half years of his first five-year term.

There is no evidence that Mbeki or Tshwete ever confronted any of the three. The allegations were hurled into the public arena via the media.

Mbeki and Tshwete had served under Nelson Mandela and would have been aware of a situation that confronted Mandela in February 1998.

The then head of the defence force, General George Meiring, handed Mandela an intelligence report about a plot by the Front African People's Liberation Army to assassinate the president, murder judges, occupy Parliament and broadcasting stations and cause mayhem that would play into the hands of left-wing forces.

The report contained 130 names, including many of his trusted colleagues. Mandela quietly appointed a judge to investigate the report and its contents. The judge reported back that there was no substance to the report. It was a fabrication.

Mandela then presented the outcome of the judge's inquiry to a meeting attended by a number of high-ranking officers from the army who were fingered in the report. Meiring was present, but was not asked to respond.

Just two months later , Meiring announced that he had asked the president to suspend his contract, allowing him to retain all the attendant retirement benefits that went with his service.

Were president Mbeki and minister Tshwete acting in panic? Not if you consider certain previous incidents.

ý In October 2000 Mbeki defended his stance on HIV-Aids before the ANC parliamentary caucus, made up of more than 250 MPs. He could not have been unaware that the briefing would leak to the media. In the briefing he informed the caucus that criticism of his HIV-Aids policies was a plot by the CIA acting in cahoots with the drug companies.

In another instance, by early 2001, there were media reports that sources in government were saying that the EU was out to discredit Mbeki.

What is common to all incidents is that information which has the aura of authenticity and authority is put into the public arena.

In January 2001 the Scorpions came into existence.

They portrayed themselves as fearless and fearsome. They combined investigative and prosecutorial functions. Their activities were widely and dramatically publicised. In their wake there appeared leaks in the media.

The leaks had several effects. Firstly, those fingered were not yet charged in a court of law. The sub judice rule did not apply and such persons were placed under the obligation to answer in the court of public opinion.



The cases that got the most publicity and received the most attention were usually those involving leading members of the ANC.

[Then NPA chief Bulelani] Ngcuka called them comrade-criminals and the opposition loved it. Those who alleged abuse of state power were brushed aside.

Some dots are more significant than others in helping us grasp the big picture. In this context, when one reads the McCarthy transcripts, it is easy to cling to the text as relating only to the timing of charging Zuma. But the tone and context of the transcripts demonstrate that these exchanges were part of an ongoing relationship.

The talk about planning a comeback strategy is not about timing - it is about retaining power that began, as they saw it, to slip out of their hands with the outcome of the elections at [the ANC national conference in] Polokwane.

This view gains credence when we revisit the press conference held by Ngcuka and [then justice minister Penuell] Maduna in August 2003 where they announced that though there was a prima facie case, there was not a winnable case against Zuma.

The idea was to not charge Zuma, but to hang him in public without trial.

By the time of Polokwane, it was clear that the Pontius Pilate stance taken in 2003 had not worked. Now it was imperative that Zuma be charged.

So when one goes to the Ngcuka-Maduna press conference of 2003 it becomes clear that the primary consideration was politics and not the merits of the case of corruption.

To return to the proposition I put forward at the outset.

Defining the threat to our democracy that underlay the now incontestable abuse of state power becomes important in order to design checks and balances that would curtail such abuse in the future and ensure greater accountability.

This is not the time for playing the blame game. This is the time to acknowledge our role, whether in acts of commission or omission, in allowing the abuse of power to continue for so many years.

We are at the beginning of ensuring that we minimise the danger. We cannot avoid acknowledging it has been the sheer tenacity of Zuma and the conviction and actions of those in the ANC and the alliance that Zuma was the victim of a political abuse of power that resulted in its exposure.

We cannot leave the future defence of our democracy to such a fortuitous conjuncture of events.

Acknowledging this might not sit well with some. But solutions in the real world are messy.

We have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and move ahead.