A step taken, but much still to repair

30 October 2011 - 03:14 By Sunday Times Editorial

Sunday Times Editorial: AFTER a year of dangerous prevarication - one during which this newspaper's staff were detained, bugged and treated as if they had committed treason - President Jacob Zuma has finally done the right thing. His decision to fire the Public Works Minister, Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, and the Local Government Minister, Sicelo Shiceka, finally restored some confidence that South Africa's political system can take on graft.

President Jacob Zuma. File picture
President Jacob Zuma. File picture

A free, independent press exposed their abuse of the public trust. An independent institution, the public protector, investigated and the president acted, albeit belatedly.

His decision to suspend the police commissioner, General Bheki Cele, pending a further investigation is, however, disappointing. Cele, like Mahlangu-Nkabinde and Shiceka, has been the subject of an exhaustive investigation by Advocate Thuli Madonsela, the public protector.

She found that he had violated the trust placed in him as chief accounting officer by irregularly intervening to see to it that the police lease deal went ahead.

It is no accident that, of the three errant officials, Cele is the most powerful political operator.

Mahlangu-Nkabinde and Shiceka cannot damage Zuma's bid to stay in office at the ANC's Manguang conference in 2012, but Cele might do some damage in Zuma's home province of KwaZulu-Natal, where he has a political constituency of sorts.

Zuma's actions, while re-inspiring some confidence, do not erase one year and two months of shocking violations of the public trust by Cele's police. They arrogantly and aggressively arrested our journalist with an obscene show of force at our offices before taking him to Mpumalanga without allowing him access to legal counsel for well over a day. They brought charges so ludicrous that successive prosectors declined to bring them to court.

Having attempted to damage his reputation and smear him, they released him without an apology.

The intelligence services obtained the permission of a judge - a judge who should have known better - to bug our reporter's telephone. All of this failed to produce a shred of evidence that was worthy of prosecution.

The cost to the image of this country has been enormous. Our standing among free nations has been diminished and the view has taken hold that South Africa's security forces are actively closing down the space for freedom of expression.

Legislation aimed at curtailing the freedom to report continues to linger in the wings.

The government continues to believe journalists can be cowed into producing the sort of hagiography that many of its ministers mistake for coverage.

An important step has been taken towards accountability, but the stench of bad intentions remains.