JUDITH FEBRUARY: Ramaphosa can’t avoid difficult decisions about Mkhize

opinion

‘Brand South Africa’ was right on point as the red carpet was laid out for French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday.

We put our proverbial best foot forward and the Union Buildings, a masterpiece by Sir Herbert Baker, never looked more beautiful in Pretoria’s soft early winter light.

The purpose of these trips is always far more than the pomp and ceremony and President Ramaphosa had a few clear messages about vaccine ‘apartheid’ and the ‘TRIPS waiver’ regarding vaccine intellectual property rights. Those came across loudly and clearly and Macron obliged by saying all the right things.

Both men are smart, charming and politically comfortable with each other. A short press briefing took place outside the Union Buildings after the ceremonial welcome was complete.

For a while now the issue of Ramaphosa and the media has been brewing.

Why does the President not take questions from the media in a real-time question and answer session, many have asked? This has become an uncomfortable focal point, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Ramaphosa has preferred the rather more formal address to the nation; the now familiar ‘family meetings’ starting with ‘my Fellow South Africans’. We have come to know them well. Throughout these Ramaphosa has wafted between energetic and then simply looking exhausted by it all. Who can blame him, really?

The problem, of course, is that citizens expect more, and they want the media to ask tough questions on their behalf. It did not help that in the midst of the pandemic, the President’s spokesperson, Khusela Diko, was suspended for PPE-related corruption. Hardly a ‘good look’. Diko has now been ‘cleared’ by an internal ANC disciplinary process. Who knows whether she will be back on the job, but Ramaphosa would be well-served to have this senior position filled with someone who is not tainted in any way and whom the public can trust.

There is something lacking in the President’s communication strategy if it eschews real-life interactions with the media. Ramaphosa’s interactions are all at a distance - either the stilted ‘family meeting’, usually with Ramaphosa seated in an over-sized chair, reading from his ubiquitous iPad, the comfort of a one-on-one interview with a television station or, through his weekly newsletter.

A combination of these three hardly screeches ‘man of the people’. In fact, it places him away from the scrutiny of the unscripted question. South Africa also does not have the US-style press briefing where a press secretary takes questions.

White House Press Secretary to President Biden, Jen Psaki, has now made that job her own. She is an astute interlocutor for the most powerful man in the world. Even though more often than not, her answers of fact are peppered with humour and a dash of theatre, putting questions to the press secretary is an important marker of American public life.

Psaki has sought to focus on openness and transparency given her predecessors’ penchant for lying from the podium. Of course, all press secretaries understand the need to sometimes be economical with the truth. It’s part of the job to elide, after all. It is also almost a given that those in power have an uncomfortable relationship with the media. Presidents, in particular.

At the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, on 18 January 2017, he walked into the Brady Press Briefing Room to take questions one last time. Then he said about his relationship with the media, “That does not, of course, mean that I’ve enjoyed every story that you have filed. But that’s the point of this relationship. You’re not supposed to be sycophants, you're supposed to be sceptics. You’re supposed to ask me tough questions. You're not supposed to be complimentary, but you're supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure that we are accountable to the people who sent us here.”

In South Africa we make do with often long-winded, overly pompous statements from government ministers or their spokespeople. It’s all rather cumbersome and there is mostly too much deference from those managing the interactions.

So, it must have come as a surprise to President Ramaphosa that while he was taking media questions in President Macron’s presence, a Newzroom Afrika journalist had the chutzpah to ask a question about beleaguered Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize, and the dodgy tenders secured by Digital Vibes communications company. This is now the subject of a Special Investigative Unit (SIU) investigation.

There was no ‘family hold back’ in the presence of our guest. One could almost sense the discomfort as some of our dirty laundry was being aired. The journalist’s use of that specific moment to ask her question was powerful and spoke volumes about our free press who have in large part been responsible for uncovering so much corruption in our country. The media by and large do an excellent job of holding the powerful to account. Mostly in South Africa, it is not the fact that issues are hidden. The corrupt are in plain sight, mostly their misdeeds are uncovered by the media. The question is always, “now that we know, what consequences will there be?” We come unstuck at that point, given the weakness of our institutions.

Ramaphosa paused and with his characteristic calm, assured us that he would deal with the matter after the SIU report was delivered. He offered this, “The SIU is looking into this matter, so I am waiting for the SIU to finish their report. There has been a preliminary report and investigation at departmental level and the minister has briefed me. I am waiting to see how the SIU will conclude on this matter.”

On calls for Mkhize’s dismissal, Ramaphosa said, ‘“I hear there are calls being made and I have heard them. I would like to see the SIU report and to look at the matter closely myself, and thereafter take the matter forward.”

We expected this from Ramaphosa. Never one to act with haste, he was always going to take the institutionalist position. Let us wait and see in other words. Some may call it deferring a difficult decision. Perhaps in the hope that it will go away?

The problem for Ramaphosa is that this is not going to go away. The media will continue to ask the difficult questions about Mkhize. This is par for the course in a democracy.

During the early days of the pandemic, we lauded Mkhize for his work ethic and his commitment to science. He has been indefatigable and has largely met the moment.

Yet now he faces allegations that Digital Vibes, a communications company which received a R150 million contract from the Department of Health for, inter alia, messaging on COVID-19 and the National Health Insurance (NHI) related issues, made payments for Mkhize’s own benefit and that of his son, Dedani. This came to light in a Daily Maverick/Scorpio investigation after 26 May when Mkhize said, “Let me categorically state that I have not personally benefited from this contract”. He also then denied knowing about the involvement of his former PA Naadhira Mitha and his political adviser Tahera Mather in the contract.

Mkhize may come to regret those denials in the coming days.

During an unprecedented health and economic crisis when South Africans have suffered, and continue to suffer untold hardship, when people are dying all around us, a tender worth tens of millions was allocated to a network of individuals allegedly linked to the minister. It is hard to stomach when South Africans are repeatedly reminded that the kitty is bare.

No matter how much we may have admired Mkhize’s commitment during the pandemic, no matter how hard it might be for Ramaphosa to replace him, there is enough in the public domain for Mkhize to do the honourable thing and resign. But this is South Africa and those in public office are loathe to resign. In fact, they cling to their positions even in the face of the most egregious allegations. Shame is a rare commodity in South African public life. How else do we explain former President Jacob Zuma still maintaining his innocence even as we hear the daily litany of state capture at the Zondo Commission?

There have been calls from some that Mkhize should ‘step aside’. That is now an ‘ANC-ism’ which has crept into our political lexicon. Ministers serve at the pleasure of the President who appoints his Cabinet. Mkhize can either resign or Ramaphosa can relieve him of his duties. Mkhize might also take a leave of absence, or be instructed to do so, until the SIU investigation is complete. Might Ramaphosa find comfort in such a ‘middle road’ position which sounds a lot like ‘stepping aside’?

A cloud hangs over Mkhize and what he says and does is undermined by these allegations. At the very least, Mkhize is politically accountable for what happened. His position has now become untenable.

If we are to believe Ramaphosa’s rhetoric about dealing decisively with corruption, then he will have to do what good leaders are asked to do and that is to make difficult decisions, even if it involves a close ally and a capable Cabinet minister.

The only way this government can course correct is if decisive action is taken in the face of irregular tenders involving networks of politically connected individuals.

It is, to put it mildly, a most unfortunate turn of events for a man of Mkhize’s ability.

It is also trite to say that eternal vigilance is the price we pay for freedom. We must therefore continue to be vigilant even if it leads to uncomfortable conclusions.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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