Absa lifeboat: The real problem with the PP's report

Jeremy Gordin on why we should be concerned with what Busisiwe Mkhwebane has got up to

I shall – uncharacteristically – cut straight to the proverbial chase.

According to Rob Rose in the FM, “Shortly before 8pm on Wednesday December 21, four days before Christmas, an e-mail popped into the inbox of Barclays Africa’s lawyers. Attached was the ‘provisional report’ from new public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, detailing how she believes Absa should be forced to repay R1.1bn plus interest to government for the post-1985 bailout of the now-defunct Bankorp.” (See here.)  

Well, I think the public protector’s “provisional report” on the SA Reserve Bank’s “lifeboat” to ABSA/Bankorp, which should rather be called the “SARB boetiebaantjie,” is one of the worst things that could have happened to us.

By “us,” I mean those Seffricans who hoped that Mkhwebane would carry on the principled work of her predecessor, Thuli Madonsela; would, in short, become one of the few voices making an independent, rational and evidential stand against the stinking tsunami of malfeasance that has been, and still is, washing through the corridors of power (and elsewhere) in this country.

Think about it. There are DA MPs who try to cut to the core of corruption. But, in the view of many of my landslayt (country people), they are merely stooges “playing politics”. Julius “Little Julie” Malema and his merry people have also, by way of trying to whack President Jacob Zuma in the cojones, done their bit “against corruption,” especially when it came to the Nkandla rip-off. But I suspect they, or many of them, including Little Julie, will be co-opted to the pursuit of corruption (in various guises), once they realize they too can put their snouts into the trough.

There are still some journalists and commentators (a few on Politicsweb), unfortunately mainly old farts, who do a really decent “investigative” job. But the mainstream media is as interested in, or (more to the point) capable of, speaking truth to power as I am desirous of having my fingers amputated. As for the younger journalists – and obviously I am generalizing – they seem more devoted to political correctness than to anything approaching “the truth.” There are still some voices crying in the wilderness; Paul Hoffman SC of Accountability Now – who apparently went to Madonsela years ago about the SARB boetiebaantjie – is one such voice; but such as he are few and far between.

And there are of course still some apparently principled office bearers; I am thinking, for example, of Pravin Gordhan and the fellows in the finance ministry who refused the sweet lure of the Saxonwold shebeen. And there are more of those elsewhere in government (well, I hope so).

As for those among us who are “vocal” in the Fallist and BLF movements, etc., and on Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere, etc. – BLF leader Andile Mngxitama is a nice example – their main interests seem to be to stick it to the (white) man and to type abusive and startlingly irrational horse manure. 

In short, had it not been for Madonsela and her reports on Nkandla and (though incomplete) state capture, we would have all been much, much poorer – and I’m not talking about money or land.

Consequently, when Mkhwebane got the job as PP, there were many who had serious misgivings. As I said, Madonsela had been a major bulwark for all of us, and there were those concerned that Mkhwebane would be but a pale imitation, or worse. But, hey, Mkhwebane had large shoes to fill, ones getting crisped by the massive spotlight of the media and the rancour of many powerful people ... and one wants to give people a chance, doesn’t one?

Now comes this “provisional report”. What’s the problem, you want to know? To begin with, it’s said by those who know (see Rob Rose’s article and an excellent one by Hilary Joffe in Business Day  see here) to be a shoddy piece of work – on a basic, technical level.

Mkhwebane “can’t seem to tell the difference between ‘borrowed’ and ‘lent’” and, more worrying, Mkhwebane apparently did not bother to read the 122-page report issued in 1999 by Judge Dennis Davis and a panel. The Davis report concluded that the SARB boetiebaantjie was indeed illegal but that (to quote Joffe) “it was simply impractical to recover any benefit [from ABSA], even if it were contractually possible, which was also a question mark.”

But let us pause at this point and consider that it looks as though it wasn’t Mkhwebane who put this “provisional report” together!

It was, it seems, Madonsela who wrote it (“Not your best piece of work, dear,” as my teachers would say), even though Mkhwebane has obviously tacked on a new or different conclusion and recommendation. Mkhwebane has written that remedial action should include Absa paying R2.25-billion to the fiscus for “an apartheid-era bailout”. She has also recommended that the president consider a commission of inquiry into state looting during apartheid. (Hello? I thought the Truth commission was long gone, like a turkey through the corn.)

As the late, lamented Manuel of Fawlty Towers might have asked: Wha’ hoppen’? It seems Mkhwebane got hoist with her own petard.

This, my friends, is a gorgeous Seffrican tableau: on the one hand, Mkhwebane was continually berated for not being another Madonsela, so she took Madonsela’s report (which is clearly a mess but which Mkhwebane figured would be a winner – after all, Madonsela “wrote” it); on the other hand, Mkhwebane added a little wiggle of her own – “here’s a classic case of ‘apartheid looting’ or ‘white monopoly capital’ at work and ABSA moet kak en betaal” – only to find herself  literally sans-culottes.

What can we conclude? Either Mkhwebane is stupid, incompetent, stressed, or out of her depth, or all four of those. But it is, alas, worse than merely a case of incompetence or having a few sessions with a psychologist, etc. The question we have to ask is why would she choose this particular report for her first appearance playing for the national team?

As my bubbe might have said: “Ach, tuchis, it’s obvious, my boychik.” Either Mkhwebane is even more “compromised” – i.e. tied to certain group of people – than we feared; or someone has been whispering in her shell-like ear (pretty loudly too). Or both.

What is a leading Seffrican pursuit at the minu