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
27 March 2008

What are the President and his advisors smoking?

When President Thabo Mbeki suspended Vusi Pikoli, the Director of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), after a warrant of arrest was issued for Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, his own officials could not get their story straight about why this action was necessary. They gave several different explanation before finally settling on the excuse that there had been a breakdown of communication between the Minister of Justice and Minister Pikoli.

Until this happened, President Mbeki was portrayed in the media as an opaque, yet cunning and even calculated politician who never did anything without thinking it through and without assessing the possible political consequences of his actions. But with this move the President and his officials suddenly looked foolish, amateurish or even panicky, and for the first time we had to consider the possibility that the President was doing things on the fly and that what we thought was cunning was mere incompetence.

This impression has now been reinforced by the way in which the President is dealing with the issue of releasing the Khampepe Commission Report which looked into the mandate and location of the Scorpions. During his State of the Nation speech, the President announced that the would make public the findings of the Khampepe Commission of Inquiry. Although he did not agree to make public the full Report, his announcement was widely welcomed because it was thought that such a move would strengthen the hand of those who wished to save the Scorpions.

Then the Democratic Alliance (DA) launched a freedom of information request to force the President’s hand and to get him to disclose the full Report. One would think his office would respond in a politically cunning manner by, say, releasing the Report’s findings as promised – but he did not do so and like his lie about not remembering meeting the head honchos of the French arms company he is just digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself.

Now we hear his office has refused to release any portion of the Report. The Mail & Guardian reports:

Releasing the Khampepe commission’s report on the Scorpions at this juncture will “cause prejudice” to South Africa’s national security, says President Thabo Mbeki. In a letter faxed to the Democratic Alliance (DA) on Wednesday night, Mbeki’s office refused the DA’s request in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act for access to the report.

In the letter, deputy information officer in the Presidency Sibongile Sigodi said the Act allowed for a request to be refused if disclosure “will cause prejudice to the defence, security and international relations of the Republic”. Mbeki intended to release the report at “an appropriate time without compromising the defence, security and international relations of the Republic”, she said.

This seems perplexing to say the least. Why, if the President has already agreed to release at least the findings of the Report, is his office now refusing to release any part of the Report? If national security is really at stake, why not merely black out the offending passages and let us see the rest of the Report? Did the Presidency think through the consequences of the innitial announcement that it would release the findings of the Report or did they make this announcment on the spur of the moment only to realise afterwards that releasing the report would give ammunition to their political enemies inside and outside the ANC?

To me it seems as if the original announcement was not thought through properly – unless it was always meant to be no more than a misleading announcement aimed at appeasing his detractors. Could it be that the President thought he could get away with such a huge lie – claiming that he will release the findings of the Report while having no intention of releasing them at all? The only alternative interpretation is that the Presidency is in disarray and prematurely made this announcement before looking again at the Report and realising that it would damage their cause. Either way, the President comes out of this looking like a dishonest fool.

Then there is the absurd claim that the timing of the release of the Report itself could “cause prejudice to the defence, security and international relations of the Republic”. It does not seem logical, to say the least, that releasing information about the Scorpions now – when we are supposed to debate its fate – would cause prejudice to the security of the state, while it would not cause prejudice to the security of the state if released at a later date. In fact, it seems rather laughable and insults our intelligence. Who do these people think we are? Do they really think we will believe such a blatant lie?

Perhaps the Presidency has realised that releasing the Report now would cause prejudice to the President and perhaps he is conflating his own interest with that of national security? Now that would be veryu scary. Or is he again acting in a petulant manner and refusing the request of the DA merely because it is the DA making the request?

No matter what the reasons for the refusal of the Presidency to release the Report, we know that it has nothing to do with national security. Politicians always use national security as a last excuse when they do not want to come clean. In the end, this refusal looks foolish and creates the impression that the President was lying when he announced that the findings of the Report would be made public in due course.

The more we know of Mbeki and his advisors, the more they appear out of touch with reality and with the truth. I guess that is what happens when one lives in the bubble that is the Presidency and only gets told what one wants to hear.

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