Nkandla and justice: Seeing is believing

That the issue of Nkandla is going to be seen as the scandal of these years probably goes without saying. It has come to dominate our politics in a way we haven't seen since the Arms Deal. Despite fierce competition from the likes of the Bheki Cele Headquarters scandal, or the Guptas landing at Waterkloof, Nkandla has come to take over day-to-day politics in a whole new way. For the last week or so, much of the action has been in Parliament. But down in KwaZulu-Natal, a small drama is playing out that could really show us what actually happened. It is vital that the media are allowed to see it. Even if both the defence and the prosecution object.

Most political scandals have two parts: the original sin (such as illegally bugging the headquarters of the Watergate Democratic National Committee) and then the cover-up (such as lying about it that ultimately cost President Richard Nixon his job). In the case of Nkandla, we all think we know about the original sin - it was the instruction, somehow, that the president should get a brand-spanking new town all to himself. And we are seeing the failure of the cover-up in Parliament. But we don't really know how it all happened, who gave instructions to whom, who decided on this company and not that one. Were their emails? Late-night cellphone conversations? Landline chats during office hours, or actual hard document memoranda?

At the moment the Public Works Department is conducting hearings for 12 officials it believes are responsible for what actually happened. It did appear that those hearings would be held with the media present. But over the weekend City Press ran a story saying that eleven of those officials had now changed their minds, and would ask that the media be barred from their hearings.

Their argument, as advanced by the Public Servants Association's KZN Manager Claude Naicker, is that there is currently a series of interlocking hearings underway and what is heard in one could well end up affecting another. He also says that the individuals concerned are currently feeling the stress and really need to get this over with as quickly as possible. Essentially, he doesn't believe that this is in the interests of justice.

But actually, there is a much bigger issue playing out. It is simply not enough for us as South Africans to know that this person is guilty of X and that of Y, and this person is the Number One Innocent. We need to know much more than that. We need to know why all of this happened. And to do that, we need to use the formal machinery that the law provides for in this case. Which, for the moment, is a disciplinary inquiry such as this one. We all need to fully understand the actual process that was used and, presumably, how influence was pushed here and there.

Naicker's arguments are also flawed in that they don't take into account how a public hearing can actually protect those very people who are the accused.

There is, thankfully, a series of textbook cases that illustrate this rather well.

Just last year, the Gupta family famously landed their jet at the Waterkloof Air Force Base. It was the first exposed use, but probably not the last, of a public facility being used for a private purpose. We all know how they were able to achieve that. It was, after all, the scandal in which Number One became known in public as Number One. For that little misdemeanor, an inter-ministerial task team was put in charge of the investigation. And in the end, they decided that the only person who could really face charges was the head of Protocol at the International Relations Department, Bruce Koloane. He was suspended for a time, and then demoted. (The military laid its own charges against a Colonel in the air force; however, it appears they've been dallying about what to actually charge her with).

Nobody believes that Koloane was the only person involved. It seems impossible for even people like Gwede Mantashe to believe it. Certainly, much of the public does not believe it.

Contrast that with what happened with Glynnis Breytenbach.

She was the prosecutor from the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) accused of wrongdoing in a case around ICT Trading and mining rights. But there were strong suspicions that actually it was all to do with former Police Intelligence head Richard Mdluli. There the media went to court and won an application to have access to her disciplinary hearing. That meant there was tweet-by-tweet coverage. Every single detail of the drama was exposed. By the end of it, it seemed impossible not to draw the conclusion that she had been charged only because she had been in charge of the Mdluli investigation. This was a case where the public exposure of the process, the detailed reporting of it, made a real difference. It is impossible to know what would have happened had the media not been there. But, considering the great lengths some people took to charge her in the first place (considering she was exonerated in the end) it is clear there could have been the potential for another outcome.

As a result of this verdict, we now know what is happening in the NPA. We know that Advocate Nomgcobo Jiba and Advocate Lawrence Mrwebi appear to be leading a faction that must surely have a political motive. When we contextualise their behaviour during this hearing (particularly that of Mrwebi) with the findings against them by the Supreme Court of Appeal, we suddenly get a picture of what is happening within the organisation.

For us as the public, the NPA is a body that is vital to our freedom, and therefore it is important to know what is going on within it. The same surely follows here. It is vital to know what actually happened with Nkandla.

No doubt, there will be supporters of Number One who think we are just chasing the ratings; that this is all about getting access to something we should not have access to. But that is to miss the point: the public perception of Number One's role in this is so bad that the unvarnished truth may actually be better than the rumour. It may well be that there were a series of honest mistakes that were made, or that the Public Protector missed a step in the process somehow, or even that actually the upgrades were security upgrades. The only way to properly convince the public of that is to make sure they are able to see and understand the process that is unfolding in these disciplinary hearings.

There's an old saying we media types like to use: It is not enough for justice to be done. Justice must also be seen to be done. Both for those Public Works officials, and for President Jacob Zuma himself.

_Stephen Grootes is host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on _ Twitter: @StephenGrootes

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.