Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
3 April 2007

Billy Masethla’s last stand

Will the Constitutional Court have the guts to overturn Billy Masethla’s suspension and dismissal last year by President Thabo Mbeki, asked the Mail & Guardian recently? After reading Masethla’s heads of arguments (brilliantly drafted by Advocates Neil Tuchten, SC and Matthew Chaskalson) I think the newspaper asked the wrong question.

It is clear that the lawyers for Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils and President Mbeki, made a series of monumental blunders in handling the suspension and dismissal of Masethla. It is not, however, a foregone conclusion that the Court would find against the President because the judges might see his power to fire the head of the Intelligence Services as such a political decision that the President should be given a wide margin of appreciation in such a matter.

What intrigues me though, is why Mr. Masethla (pictured) has chosen to go all the way to the Constitutional Court to challenge his suspension and dismissal on procedural grounds. He was offered a payout of the rest of his contract – which would have expired at the end of the year in any case. And if the decision by the President is set aside on procedural grounds, the President would be able to fire him again – this time using the correct legal procedures.

This suggests that Mr. Masethla is not taking this case all the way to the Constitutional Court for the sake of money or to get his job back. I think there may be two interrelated explanations for his move.

First, it would, of course, be extremely embarrassing for the President if the Constitutional Court found that he completely bungled the suspension and firing of Mr. Masethla. It would suggest – as Mr Masethla’s lawyers put it – that the President and his advisers saw themselves as above the law in dealing with matters concerning the intelligence service.

Such a finding would have political repercussions as it would enhance the view (no matter how unfairly held) that President Mbeki has overstepped the mark in his long-standing battle with Mr. Jacob Zuma and others in the succession battle. You see, Mbeki’s critics would say, we told you our President does not play fair.

Second, it is interesting to note that Mr. Masethla’s lawyers strongly argue that in any event, the matter should be sent back to the High Court in order that oral evidence could be presented by, amongst others, President Mbeki, to make a determination on the factual disputes in the case. President Mbeki will then have to take the stand to give evidence on sensitive and embarrassing events around the firing of Mr. Masethla. He will also have to justify why he had fired Mr. Masethla and will have to submit himself to cross-examination.

Could it be that Mr. Masethla has some explosive information that could be put to Mbeki under cross-examination that would strike at the heart of Mbeki’s credibility? Or is Mr. Masethla hoping that Mr. Mbeki’s performance under cross-examination would be so disastrous that it would finally put an end to the President’s ambition to stand for a third term as President of the ANC? Mbeki has never been good under questioning and generally politicians make bad witnesses, so anything is possible. I, for one, would be fascinated to see how President Mbeki copes with cross-examination.

One thing is certain, this case is turning into one of the politically most significant cases ever heard by the Constitutional Court.

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