Monday, June 07, 2004

Big news of the day is that Bulelani Ngcuka, national director of public prosecutions, may soon be out of a job. According to City Press, the key problem is that he defied an order by the ANC leadership to apologise to Public Protector Lawrence Mushwana, who found, we should recall, that Ngcuka had infringed Jacob Zuma's dignity by saying that there was a prima facie case of corruption against him, but by declining to prosecute. (Penuell Maduna also lambasted Mushwana but did apologise, by means of an SMS -- a strange method!) City Press apparently have inside information that an exit deal is being arranged for Ngcuka and this strikes me as plausible.

Quite a lot follows from this. Firstly, who has the right to fire Ngcuka and on what grounds? We should recall that he is, after all, in some sense 'independent.' The reason given by the article for his imminent dismissal -- failure to follow an order from the ANC -- can't possibly be the reason for him leaving. That would make nonsense of his independence. Rather, it must be that he can be removed on certain extreme grounds and that insulting the Public Protector is thought to fall into this category. (I should note that the article also says that Ngcuka is 'under pressure to resign', which would mean that he is not actually being fired. If that is the case then I have to say that it would set a very poor precedent.)

The second question is why this is happening. Cynics are likely to argue that Ngcuka has demonstrated too much independence and is being removed to make way for a more pliable replacement. But, as much as I've admired Ngcuka's independence, we should recall that he has also made some appalling lapses of judgment. The most obvious was saying that there was evidence of Zuma's guilt but that he wasn't going to prosecute. That, as Andrew noted, was outrageous. If you have evidence then prosecute. But if you don't, then don't smear the man's reputation without giving him an opportunity to clear his name. Attacking the Public Protector was also singularly misguided. The Public Protector is, after all, an independent office created by the Constitution, and whoever holds it can't be expected to perform his job if his work is maligned as 'garbage' and he is described as 'the saddest case that I have seen, intellectually' -- Maduna's terms, I think -- by ministers and other public officials. That suggests a contempt for constitutional structures and a certain level of arrogance (possibly engendered by having seen off Mac Maharaj's allegations at the Hefer Commission).

So, for opponents of Ngcuka, there's plenty to point to, although the question remains whether any of this constitutes grounds for dismissal. Let's just hope that his successor -- thought to be Ngoako Ramatlhodi -- will be willing to take on the big names of the ANC as well as demonstrating more political nous than his predecessor.

UPDATE: Kgalema Motlanthe has denied that is putting pressure on Ngcuka to apologise, stressing that he is not answerable to the ANC. Well and good. But let's wait and see. If Ngcuka does suddenly depart in a few months time then the de facto situation will be that the Director of Public Prosecutions is answerable to the ANC.

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