Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Nxesi and Cwele take us for fools on Nkandla report

THE news this week may be dominated in parts by the Democratic Alliance’s fight to get the Department of Public Works task team report into the R206m upgrade of President Jacob Zuma’s homestead in Nkandla unclassified and tabled before Parliament for debate.

According to the opposition, the name of State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele was used to justify its referral to the closed joint standing committee on intelligence.

This follows a parliamentary reply by Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi, in which he said the report had been classified according to the Minimum Information Security Standards policy and the Protection of Information Act of 1982.

Given that neither the Cabinet policy nor the act provide for the classification of the document in law, critics have dismissed the action as unlawful and a naked attempt to shield Zuma from scrutiny.

Cwele himself has rushed to clear his name. His spokesman Brian Dube said: "It is factually incorrect that the Minister of State Security, Dr Siyabonga Cwele, has ‘classified the report top secret’ or has issued an instruction to this effect, as claimed in some media reports."

The document could only be classified by its author, he said.

In this case, the document was written by a task team of justice and security officials who were commissioned by the Department of Public Works to investigate claims that public funds were wrongfully used in the upgrade of the president’s home. The state security ministry points to this team as the authors of the document and thus distances itself from the decision to classify it.

According to Dube, the Cabinet security cluster had intended for the report to be handed to parliament — presumably to be discussed in some open forum.

Parliamentary notes show that a letter was submitted to the speaker of Parliament on June 19 by Nxesi. It said that Nxesi "will submit, on behalf of the minister for state security, the task team report on the security upgrades at the private residence of the president of the republic at Nkandla to the chairperson of the joint standing committee on intelligence", and that the report was classified "top secret" and had not been made available to the Public Protector and Auditor-General to assist them in their investigations.

It is now apparently up to Nxesi to explain what is going on. In truth, however, there is hardly anything for him to explain. We can see that we are being taken for fools. The DA may not intend for the issue to become the protocol for classification, but the puppeteers behind this fiasco would very much like us to focus on this distraction at the expense of the real questions: did the president know that public funds were being misappropriated to upgrade his home?

In his reply to Parliament earlier this year, Zuma denied that former public works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde told him about the extent of the upgrades to his home. He told Parliament that he was only aware of upgrades undertaken by his family of its own account.

"The nature and form of the improvements was decided upon by the relevant officials through their departments. As already indicated, such information would not include details on the specifics of what would be done, by whom and at what cost," his reply said.

He also said he had been "aware" that the security cluster would do upgrades of its own as part of his presidential security arrangements, but heavily suggested that he had not bothered to check what it was doing. It is improbable that he did not know that these were costly upgrades, if he had at all visited his own home in the past few years. He need only have looked around.

It is impossible to buy this false credulity. Nxesi’s difficulty in releasing the report for public dissemination seems motivated by the fact that there is just no explaining away the R206m expense.

This irritating passing-the-buck exercise is exactly the same kind of thing we saw with the Gupta/Waterkloof scandal. After the Guptas were allowed to use an air force base for private travel, the African National Congress was first out the block with condemnation. Things moved along swiftly after that, till we discovered that practically the only one to be blamed was state protocol chief Bruce Koloane. He was the only person who put this in motion, without the knowledge of any political bosses? We are not buying it, as they said to the man selling the one-legged dog.

Zuma is being shielded from scrutiny. It’s that simple.

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