Could the Nkandla case afterglow fade?
There are two reasons I will always remember the press conference where Police Minister Nathi Nhleko unveiled his farcical Nkandla report. The first was the obvious and alarming spectacle of seeing a person who was sweating so profusely, it appeared to be raining out of his face.
The second was for the ungovernability of a question asked by a colleague: “Do you actually think South Africans are stupid enough to believe this report?”
Nhleko, sweat pouring down his brow, bumbled through an answer. But that question was really answered in the Constitutional Court on Tuesday, with interest. This week’s answer was a resounding no – and to cap it all, not even President Jacob Zuma, who commissioned the report, is now willing to associate himself with it.
Indeed, it was only the carefully crafted climbdown by Jeremy Gauntlett SC on behalf of Zuma that prevented what could have been a fairly nasty spectacle for the president. Although there will be a significant bill at some point, dear taxpayer, we should rejoice. We finally seem to be getting some value for money on this front.
Out in the cold, though, were Zuma’s co-respondents, Nhleko and Baleka Mbete, the Speaker of the National Assembly. Some hard questions need to be asked, but that is a matter for another day.
It was great to see the court at work during a live TV broadcast and, judging by Twitter, people seemed impressed with the proceedings – particularly so when parties who seem to have been willing to spare no absurdity in their quest to defend the president were brought up short.
While it remains to be seen how the court pronounces on the matter – and trying to predict how a court will rule is a mug’s game – it seems certain that, given the president’s concessions, the court will affirm Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s powers.
Trolls and party hacks fell silent as the public basked in a happy constitutional afterglow.
But even as we rejoice at the way we perceive things to have gone, we would do well not to take the Constitutional Court for granted.
President Zuma will in the near future be required to appoint two more judges to the Bench. Justice Johann van der Westhuizen is leaving soon and, later this year, another vacancy will open up when Dikgang Moseneke, deputy chief justice, retires. It will be sad to see Moseneke go. It is hard to imagine anyone who better personifies judicial excellence and constitutionalism in South Africa. Who will the new judges be? In the case of the Constitutional Court, justices are appointed from a short list sent to the president by the Judicial Service Commission ( JSC).
The court calls for nominations and then interviews are conducted before the JSC draws up the short list that will go to the president.
A lot more hype and public awareness needs to accompany these proceedings when they happen.
The aptly named Judges Matter coalition is a great initiative that tries to do just that and deserves support – find the initiative on Twitter.
It would also help if the media could invest more time and resources into getting to grips with not just the JSC’s interview proceedings (at which point the horse has largely bolted as far as public participation goes), but also with raising awareness around the nomination process and the candidates.
After this year’s vacancies are filled, it could well be the last time a spot on the Bench opens up for quite a while.
If the Nkandla saga teaches us anything, it’s that the people who occupy institutions matter. People of principle, such as Madonsela, will build effective democratic institutions we can be proud of. Spineless sycophants, who have only ever known a “lurking flirtation” (as Gauntlett puts it) with integrity, will do the opposite.