The ANC's public relations fiasco

What a place of contradictions South Africa is.

This past week saw the first ANN7 South African of the Year awards ceremony. It's the sort of thing one stumbles upon on television when flicking aimlessly through channels.

The event seemed almost surreal as the Gupta-owned television station (and the Guptas) sought to further imprint itself on the South African national landscape. The unbearable 'extravaganza' provided some insight into South Africa's many contradictions, the veneer that includes a litany of reductionist, vacuous statements about our country that fails to capture the true heart of South Africa.

The awards honoured great South Africans. And they were all there, from Hashim Amla to George Bizos. Amla might have been relieved to be fending off Australians in neighbouring Zimbabwe instead. Clearly no expense was spared and there was irony a-plenty. No more so than when Tokyo Sexwale, looking like someone straight out of 'gangsta rap' declared 'Mamma Gupta' as the near mother of the nation as she stood woodenly on stage. There was the usual tribute to Madiba and one could not help but think what he might have thought of this spectacle of politicians and Guptas sitting on comfy chairs right at the stage, some even caught talking on cellphones.

These are, after all, the same people who were allowed to enter the country with a planeload of guests at Waterkloof Air Force base because of their close political ties to the president. No one has yet to take political responsibility for that single, brazen act which is probably the clearest indication of the capture of the state by the politically connected as there can possibly be.

To further conclude the contradictions was the announcement we had 'all been waiting for', that of South African of the Year. As Thuli Madonsela's name was announced, she could not have looked more gob-smacked. Of course she deserved it but she probably did not believe she would be receiving it from 'Gupta TV'.

So, what to make of this curious, contradictory event - just another day in South Africa where some form of glamour and shallow glitz papers over a multitude of errors and paradoxes.

Speaking of the Public Protector, she has again found herself in the centre of a spat when deputy minister of defence and military veterans, while speaking to military veterans, questioned Thuli Madonsela's credentials and claimed she was a 'CIA agent'. Kebby Maphatsoe has now apologized - sort of - after Madonsela demanded he retract the comments. In terms of the Public Protector Act 23 of 1994 it is a criminal offence to insult the Public Protector. Maphatsoe now says his comments were 'misinterpreted'.

The bottom line, of course, is that there is a culture of attack on the Public Protector's office which has now become virtually commonplace amongst those within the ANC seeking to protect President Zuma or those who have felt the weight of Madonsela's findings about maladministration and corruption. When ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe says he believes the Public Protector is in cahoots with the EFF, or when his deputy, Jessie Duarte insinuates that the Public Protector has ulterior motives, it is a signal that it is 'open season' to attack Madonsela and her office.

So, we should not be surprised when a deputy minister acts in a way which is not only irresponsible but undermining of a Constitutional body. He is simply following what has become a worrying party trend. Government has said the views reflected were Maphatsoe's own and the ANC has 'distanced' itself from the comments even as it has caused a diplomatic row as well.

These responses are simply not good enough. Maphatsoe should be disciplined and relieved of his position. He clearly has a limited understanding both of his oath of office and the Constitution and what it demands of him. Yet, given the current political context, this will no doubt be swept under the carpet while the ANC-led government lurches from one uncomfortable public relations fiasco to another.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).