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South Africa – Politics to slip into holding pattern

A great man has gone, a massive spirit has moved on.

In the imaginary world of George Lucas and Star Wars it took the destruction of an entire planet to cause a “disturbance in the Force” – last night it really was disturbed by the passing of a single human of extraordinary karma.

For many months now we have banished the unwanted thoughts that disturbed our day, we clung to the slightest hope, believed in miracles but knowing all the while that it was just a matter of time. Our spiritual, intellectual and political father was ill, but more than that he was tired, weary and he had endured and done enough. When the moment finally came it was of great sadness but tinged with relief and a sense of enormous gratitude for what he left behind, for allowing us to stand on the shoulders of a giant.

South Africa’s day-to-day politics is going into hibernation for the next 10 to 14 days – possibly longer. Normal operations will be suspended as the nation and the world gather here to remember, celebrate and bid farewell to former President Nelson Mandela.

Within an hour or so of the passing of former President Mandela last night, a full programme of events was up and running, including details of a State funeral, days of mourning and lying in state at the Union Buildings – plans and arrangements that extend to next weekend and possibly beyond. Within literally minutes, global leaders were sending condolences and making travel arrangements. The presidency, Parliament, political parties, trade unions and others will have their hands full over the next few days. Domestic politics and even the bickering and back-stabbing will cease – at least for a while.

Key issues in the pending basket until early next year include the actions recommended just yesterday by the public protector after a series of investigations; arguments and allegations over leaked Nkandla reports; and turf wars between the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and some of its affiliates, most notably the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).

Media reports in the hours before the devastating news from Houghton and President Jacob Zuma’s sombre announcement included public protector investigations that found:

  • Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson guilty of maladministration, improper and unethical conduct in the irregular awarding of an R800m tender to the Sekunjalo consortium to manage the state’s fishery vessels.
  • That former communications minister, Dina Pule, must apologise to Parliament, the communications department, and the Sunday Times for “persistently lying and unethical conduct” after Ms Pule unlawfully extended her spousal benefits to her romantic partner Phosane Mngqibisa, and then consistently lied about it.
  • That Basic Education Director General Bobby Soobrayan and Eastern Cape education boss Mthunywa Lawrence Ngonzo failed to exercise the necessary diligence and leadership during the Eastern Cape’s textbook crisis, that the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, should hold Mr Soobrayan accountable for actions and omissions that resulted in the failure to prevent, contain, and solve the national school books crisis, and that the omissions of Messrs Soobrayan and Ngonzo constituted improper conduct and maladministration.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s recommendations, including that Ms Joemat-Pettersson be sanctioned and disciplined including dismissal from her post as well as several other recommendations, are now unlikely to receive any attention until the new year. The presidency is going to be stretched to the limit with protocol and other international arrangements that most government departments are going to be involved in. It would be unrealistic to expect the presidency, Parliament and even political parties to have the time and space to attend to much else for the next 10 days or so, and much is simply going to be delayed till next year.

Even the bitter and acrimonious infighting in the alliance is likely to be put aside for the next few days as leaders across the spectrum reflect on what has been lost. The upside is that as the country reflects and remembers, we will be drawn closer and more united once again – even if for just a few days.

WHY DO WE CARE? The presidency, the legislature and government departments are going to come under massive pressure over the next few days and it is going to take a significant effort to keep clear heads. The routine and the ordinary day to day political issues are going to suffer delays and pushed onto back burners and that should be understandable – it is not a time for petty politicking, but it is also not the time to use the situation as an excuse for inaction.

Analyst: Gary van Staden

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