Humphrey Mmemezi rides into the sunset for now
Alex Eliseev argues Mmemezi was left no choice but to resign.
He huffed, he puffed and then he resigned.
Humphrey Mmemezi, the Gauteng housing and local government MEC, announced yesterday he was stepping down following a series of damning allegations made against him.
“Having deeply reflected and interacted with my organisation, I recognise that error of judgement and lack of proper advice has impacted negatively on the public image of the ANC and its government in the province,” he said in his statement. “I have decided the most honourable thing to do under these circumstances is to step down.”
We’ll get to the “honourable” part in a moment, but it’s important to look back at the tsunami of allegations that smashed into Mmemezi this year.
He was called on to explain two separate car crashes, one of which was allegedly covered up while the other left a teenage boy with brain damage.
He was accused of lying to the legislature and of using his state-owned credit card to buy everything from a R10,000 painting from a McDonald’s franchise to suits in India. He allegedly blew money on hotels less than five kilometres from his home and groceries to stock the fridge. If that wasn’t enough, Mmemezi was also accused of maladministration during his time in the Mogale City municipality.
And yet, whenever he was approached about all this, he tried to shout down the allegations with one arrogant denial after the next.
You may recall a colourful Eyewitness News video of him talking about the painting he apparently tried to pass off as hamburgers.
“Am I such a bad MEC that I must not have a painting in the office?” he almost shouted, furiously wagging his finger. “Is it a crime to buy an artistic work?”
He went on to describe the allegations against him as a ridiculous joke and moaned about having to discuss such “petty issues”. “I’m angry!” he kept repeating.
A month later he was gone, having resigned over those same petty issues.
“There are decisions that I deeply regret with regard to some of the personal purchases I made using the departmental credit card,” he now claimed. “These purchases were an error of judgement on my part for I take full responsibility and would want to apologise profusely to the people of Gauteng.”
You’ll be forgiven for thinking that these are two different people talking, or that the resignation letter was carefully crafted for him by someone else.
“I should have exercised more caution and prudence in matters of the use of the departmental corporate credit card,” he went on. “I have learnt a great deal from this mistake and will certainly ensure that it is not repeated.”
In conceding he misused his credit card, Mmemezi claimed he was badly advised and was misled by an “ambiguous” ministerial handbook. But, he vowed, he has paid back what he owes. Though some suggest he only did this once the screws began to turn on him, at least he stayed away from pulling out the “conspiracy card” this time.
The ex-MEC has threatened to sue the media (presumably The Star) for accusing him of crimes he says he did not commit. He denies any wrongdoing while serving in Mogale City and covering up any car crash. But it’s highly unlikely he’ll deliver on this threat as it would open him up to even more scrutiny. He has yet to produce any real proof to substantiate his many denials.
Interestingly, Mmemezi says that, though he is stepping down as MEC, he will remain a member of the provincial legislature. He also says nothing about his position as ANC deputy secretary in the province, which makes him one of the top five most powerful politicians in Gauteng.
But it appears it was political pressure that forced him to fall on his sword.
Speak to people on all sides of the political spectrum in the province and you’ll hear the same story: Mmemezi was pushed, resigning only to save himself further embarrassment (and further political damage).
Mmemezi was investigated by an ANC integrity committee and an independent commission set up by the legislature.
A special meeting of the legislature is due to take place on Friday, which will deal with two issues, one of which is a report into his conduct. At the same time, the ANC’s integrity committee is due to give feedback of its investigation to the party’s provincial executive committee this weekend.
Premier Nomvula Mokonyane has apparently also submitted her recommendations to the ANC.
It’s believed the findings of all these investigations are damning and explain the following statement in Mmemezi’s resignation letter: “After consultation with my organisation, through the ANC integrity committee and the provincial office bearers, I have decided… to step down.”
So the question is how honourable is it to spend months denying the allegations, claim a conspiracy and throw in the towel only once (apologies to former police commissioner Bheki Cele) all the oxygen around you has been squeezed out. Some – like Cosatu – suggest the honourable thing would have been to quit earlier. Others point out that real honour is not to commit the offences in the first place.
Mmemezi probably also didn’t help himself by telling a newspaper that he is being singled out while his predecessors – Mokonyane and Paul Mashatile – still have much to answer for.
‘‘I’m being painted black as the worst one,” he was quoted saying. “When MECs before me have not paid, they are protected.”
Mokonyane won’t say so publically, but she’s probably relieved at the resignation. She has come under tremendous pressure to fire Mmemezi while towing the political line in a province where she holds limited power.
In a statement, Mokonyane says she accepts the resignation and has appointed infrastructure development MEC, Bheki Nkosi, to watch over the department until a permanent replacement is found.
Cosatu said it hopes the resignation will set a precedent for other politicians who have broken the rules or face serious allegations.
“Cosatu regrets that he took so long to (resign), given the damage to the provincial government’s reputation,” it said.
Meanwhile, the DA says Mmemezi must still account for his actions and should not be allowed to escape through his resignation.
“We will continue to push for proper accountability for all his alleged wrongdoing, including criminal prosecution if this is warranted,” the party said.
Mmemezi is not the first MEC to resign in this manner. MEC for agriculture, conservation and environment, Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehoko, did the same after wasting almost R1-million of taxpayer money through a dodgy purchase of a Mercedes-Benz.
But Nkomo-Ralehoko still works in the legislature and chairs a committee on roads and transport, proving that Mmemezi may find himself a comfortable redeployment. Standing his ground and waiting for the axe to fall could have made this impossible.
The Star says the resignation marks a great victory for taxpayers. It’s an important victory indeed because it speaks to the rule of law and good governance in the province, and the country. Though international reports suggest South Africa is a borderline failed state, this development clearly shows that the system – however flawed – still works. It could also make other leaders think twice.
The ANC must have agonised over the resignation, considering Mmemezi is a political heavyweight who has the potential to divide the party ahead of Mangaung and to disturb the fine balance of power in Gauteng.
What’s important now is that all the huffing and puffing is not wasted. The house of lies must fall and the many questions around Mmemezi must be answered.
This column also appeared in The Daily Maverick.