Quote of the week

[Nostalgia] is rarely the past as actually experienced, of course; it is the past as imagined, as idealized through memory and desire. In this sense … nostalgia is less about the past than about the present. It operates through what Mikhail Bakhtin called an ‘historical inversion’: the ideal that is not being lived now is projected into the past.

David Medalie
10 April 2012

Pardoning criminals not such a good idea, Mr President

In the nineteen seventies and nineteen eighties it was a regular storyline of Afrikaans movies and TV series: the father of our heroine – an attorney – is disgraced after it is discovered that he had stolen money from his clients by misusing the money placed by his clients in trust with him, and he is convicted of theft and sent to prison.

The reputation of the family is destroyed and, because of all the stress and the shame, the disgraced attorney’s daughter uncharacteristically finds solace in the arms of an unscrupulous pierewaaier (dandy), who seduces her and turns her into a “fallen woman”. She falls pregnant (because God believes that “bad” girls must be punished) and flees to Paris where she prettily mopes around and stares at the Eiffel tower and at the Seine. Alternatively she stays in Cape Town and commits suicide by dramatically walking into the ocean, a-la Ingrid Jonker.

The point is, those of us subjected to this script were brought under the strong impression that for an upright member of society – an attorney nogal – to steal money from his clients was a disgracefull and disgustingly dishonest act, exactly because of the trust relationship that was supposed to exist between an attorney and his or her clients. Luckily, puritanical Christian Nationalists no longer rule South Africa, so those of us who speak Afrikaans and have a pale-ish skin no longer have to fear God’s wrath because we enjoy sex or because we believe in equality for all. Neither are we forced to go to church to pray for rain or the defeat of communism and the ANC.

But maybe we have gone a bit overboard in reacting to these bizarre Christian Nationalist values. Surely some of us seem to be far too forgiving of the crooks who steal other people’s money or take bribes – even if the bribe was solicited by Schabir Shaik? We even elect some of those implicated in criminal acts as political leaders. Should we really send a signal that stealing innocent people’s money is something easily forgiven – as long as one is married to the “right” person and has opportunistically aligned oneself to the “right” political faction inside the ANC?

Was it not bad enough that we sullied our democracy by pardoning all those involved in apartheid attrocities? Surely at some point we should start insisting that commiting a crime should disqualify one from being celebrated as an upstanding member of society?

I was wondering about this when I read on Sunday in City Press that President Jacob Zuma had expunged the criminal record of the husband of the acting prosecutions boss, Advocate Nomgcobo Jiba. Zuma’s spokesperson Mac Maharaj confirmed to City Press that former lawyer and Scorpions member Booker Nhantsi’s criminal record for stealing a client’s money from his trust fund was erased in September 2010. Nhantsi, who worked as an attorney before being appointed a deputy director in the Eastern Cape Scorpions, was convicted of theft in the Mthatha High Court in 2005. He had dipped into funds totalling R193 000 held in a trust for a client in 2003. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment, two years of which were suspended for a period of five years.

City Press reports that Jiba is closely associated with Lieutenant-General Richard Mdluli, the “controversial” head of the police crime intelligence unit. (Calling Mdluli controversial is a bit like calling George W Bush controversial for allegedly ordering the torturing and also the killing of thousands of non-Americans, but sometimes we use these euphemisms to keep ourselves sane.)

Mdluli is alleged to have murdered a rival in a love triangle and to have stolen money from a secret crime intelligence slush fund. When Jiba was in some legal difficulties (she was suspended by the NPA in 2007 for allegedly assisting the police to defeat the ends of justice by countering the Scorpions’ investigation of former police chief Jackie Selebi), Mdluli assisted her by making an affidavit in Jiba’s favour that supported the notion of a conspiracy against Selebi. (Zuma and his inner circle seem to really take all this talk of conspiracies rather seriously.)

Now the slush fund that Mdluli is alleged to have corruptly misused is the same slush fund that City Press claims was used to pay for renovations of almost R200 000 to Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s house in KwaMbonambi, northern KwaZulu-Natal. The newspaper claims that these allegations were contained in a top-secret police report that was handed to acting police chief Lieutenant General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi last month, which names Mthethwa in the Hawks’ investigation into the plundering of the R200 million secret service account. City Press speculated that Mthethwa had ordered an end to the Hawks probe because of his involvement in the scandal.

Mthethwa denied these charges, claiming that the “minister is the political executive of the SAPS and as such does not get involved in operational matters.” This claim of non-involvement in operational matters was directly contradicted by Hawks spokesman McIntosh Polela who conceded that acting police commissioner Lieutenant-General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi had, on the orders of Mthethwa, instructed the Hawks to halt all investigations involving the crime intelligence department. Someone seems to be lying about something here.

But back to the tawdry pardoning of (now) former criminal, Booker Nhantsi. Could he have been pardoned by President Zuma because he happens to be on the “right” side of the internal factional fight? Was it done to keep the acting NPA boss sweet to ensure that the criminal charges against Zuma will never be resurrected? And what does this pardoning say about the moral compass of our President? Surely it reinforces the perception that our President does not have a moral compass at all and that he is not one to let small detail like criminality stand in the way of loyalty and protection of his own interests of staying out of jail.

Now, it must be said that the President has the constitutional power to pardon any criminal in terms of section 84(2)(j) of the Constitution. However, the Constitutional Court has said in the Hugo case many years ago that the exercise of this power can be reviewed. Where the President pardoned an individual he is at the very least required to exercise that power in good faith.

If, for instance, a president were to abuse his or her powers by acting in bad faith I can see no reason why a court should not intervene to correct such action and to declare it to be unconstitutional. For example, a decision to grant a pardon in consideration for a bribe, could no doubt be set aside by a court. So, too, if a president were to misconstrue his or her powers I can see no objection to a court correcting such an error, though it could not exercise the discretion itself.

The Constitutional Court confirmed this view in the Albutt case where it found that the pardoning of a group of apartheid era prisoners with the aim of effecting reconciliation was unconstitutional because the victims of the apartheid era crimes were not consulted by the President before the decision to pardon the prisoners were taken. In that case the Court stated (and this might well come as something of a surprise or even a shock to President Jacob Zuma and some of his advisors) that:

It is by now axiomatic that the exercise of all public power must comply with the Constitution, which is the supreme law, and the doctrine of legality, which is part of the rule of law. More recently, and in the context of section 84(2)(j), we held that although there is no right to be pardoned, an applicant seeking pardon has a right to have his application “considered and decided upon rationally, in good faith, [and] in accordance with the principle of legality”. It follows therefore that the exercise of the power to grant pardon must be rationally related to the purpose sought to be achieved by the exercise of it.

When asked about the reasons behind this seemingly unethical but possibly politically expedient pardon, Mac Maharaj made the following statement:

A pardon is an act of mercy by the president if the president is convinced that it is in the public interest for a pardon to be granted. In Nhantsi’s case, he was convicted of the offence of theft, which was his first and only offence. He had also served his sentence. Nhantsi is also a qualified and skilled individual who can make a contribution to society. He was therefore pardoned accordingly.

These reasons could, of course, apply to many other people who have been convicted of crimes of dishonesty (many of whom, including Schabir Shaik, who have not been pardoned by the President), but in the absence of any proof of a bribe being paid to effect the pardon or of other bad faith factors playing a role in the pardon, one will have to conclude that the pardon – although politically scandalous and unethical – was not unlawful. (I know this distinction is not one that some politicians and some supporters of the President care to make.)

Finally, in this fog of allegations, denials and counter-allegations, this pardoning of a former dishonest thief who happens to be in the “right” political faction inside the ANC (and whose wife is in a position to decide on whether to revive criminal charges against President Zuma), will further enhance the perception that our President is at least ethically (if not legally) tainted and that he makes decisions based on his personal interests and not based on the interest of the government he leads or of the nation.

But sadly none of those implicated in these unsavoury events will flee to Paris in disgrace. Neither will they beleive that the family or party they belong to was shamed by their actions. Instead they are more likely than not to claim that they have been the victims of a terrible conspiracy concocted by unnamed foreign intelligence services, opponents inside the ANC, Helen Zille, HF Verwoerd and – who knows – James Bond himself.

Watch this space.

2015 Constitutionally Speaking | website created by Idea in a Forest