One of the more revealing aspects of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s lacklustre performance before the Zondo Commission’s Inquiry into State Capture was his impassioned defence of cadre deployment.
In a rare moment of real emotion — as opposed to earlier crocodile tears over the party leadership’s failures, as well as wooden assurances about trying harder in future — Ramaphosa pleaded with Deputy Chief Justice Ray Zondo not to find that the party’s deployment committee should be scrapped. He had good reason for his panicked response.
The tarnished thread running through the voluminous testimony before the commission was the noxious role that the African National Congress’ cadre deployment policies played. It is through the parachuting of hand-picked cadres into top jobs in government and state-owned enterprises, that the honest and capable were sidelined in favour of the corrupt.
The records and minutes of the party’s cadre deployment committee, subpoenaed by the commission, show that contrary to Ramaphosa’s claims that the committee exercised only “soft power” — guiding, recommending and suggesting, in pursuit of laudable goals of race, gender and age representativity — the reality was different. The committee, as outlined at length by the evidence leaders, exercised hard power. It “imposed its will” on the targeted appointing authorities through “commands, prescriptions and instructions”.
On occasion, it entirely usurped the functions and powers of the entity concerned and just made the appointment itself. Even ministers deferred to the committee, seeking permission to make appointments to their own departments and carrying out its instructions.
The results of this are no less sinister and deliberate than the machinations of the Afrikaner Broederbond, which during the apartheid era oversaw the National Party’s mandate to “transform” South Africa. Part of this mission was to achieve hegemonic control by placing its chosen flunkies into every key position, not only in government ministries but in commerce and industry, the judiciary, and cultural institutions.
As does the ANC with its cadre deployment, the Nats portrayed the Broederbond as essentially benign. It was merely about making sure that the party’s electoral mandate was not sabotaged by the recalcitrant supporters of the previous regime, as well as redressing historic ethnic imbalances — Afrikaner exclusion in the case of the Broederbond and Black African exclusion in the case of the ANC. The only marked difference is that Broederbond’s apparatchiks were, on the whole, more competent and thieved less than the ANC’s ones.
During last week’s proceedings of the commission, it transpired that a large and important chunk of the deployment committee’s records was conveniently missing. The missing five years just happen to coincide with Ramaphosa’s 2012 to 2017 chairmanship of the committee.
Evidence leader Paul Pretorius said he found it “improbable” that minutes had not been kept for that period and asked whether they had been lost or destroyed. Ramaphosa, mustering a level of acting skill mostly encountered in kindergarten nativity plays, pondered deeply and with ostentatiously wide-eyed innocence, eventually to reply that he could not recall ever having gone through the minutes of previous meetings while presiding as chair. In other words, minutes had not been kept.
This “unfortunate lapse of record keeping” was due to the frenetic nature of the committee’s work, said Ramaphosa. It was always “on the go”, dealing with “so many issues”. And at the time everything was a blur because “the ANC had so many committee meetings, one after the other”.
It’s an exchange which, had it been between the commission’s evidence leader and former president Jacob Zuma, would have been met with media scepticism and derision. Instead, indicative of a widespread desire to give the president the benefit of every doubt, the commentariat has glossed over it.
But Ramaphosa’s explanation demands a leap of faith too far. It’s simply not credible that a president who is compos mentis cannot instantly recall whether or not a committee he chaired monthly for five years kept minutes. It did so before he was chair and again immediately after he moved out of the position; what organisational aberration would have caused it not to do so only during his chairmanship?
Also, at a practical level, given that everyone was always “on the go” with “so many issues”, minutes would have been invaluable at ensuring that the decisions painstakingly reached and involving scores of people, were carried out as decided. Instead, we’re expected to believe that these appointments just magically happened with no one bothering to keep track. Not even an email trail to follow.
Even setting aside the grave implications of a president potentially lying under oath to a commission of inquiry, these are not inconsequential matters. In March 2019, when minutes were again being kept, the deployment committee made recommendations on two judges to fill vacancies in the Constitutional Court, another to fill a position on the Supreme Court of Appeal, as well as its choice as a deputy judge president of a court which remains unnamed in the evidence.
While we do not — yet — know the names of those chosen by the deployment committee, we do know who the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), a month later, recommended to Ramaphosa for him to chose from.
For the two vacancies on the Constitutional Court, the JSC, drawing from 11 nominations garnered from the public nominating process, submitted the names of Judge Annali Basson, Judge Patricia Goliath, Judge Jody Kollapen, Judge Fayeeza Kathree-Setiloane, Judge Stevan Arnold Majiedt, and Judge Zukisa Tshiqi. Majiedt and Tshiqi were ultimately appointed.
Were these two also the choices of the ANC’s deployment committee? Did the JSC rubber-stamp the selections of a party committee?
For the post of Deputy President of the Supreme Court of Appeal, the JSC nominated Judge Xola Petse. His name was the only name that Ramaphosa had, as is his prerogative, submitted to the JSC for consideration.
Was he, coincidentally of course, also the choice of the ANC deployment committee?
Whatever one’s suspicions, it is impossible, without having unfettered access to the documents, to match the choices of the ANC committee with the recommendations of the JSC. If they do match, it seriously damages the credibility of a constitutional process that was meant to ensure impartial judges who are unburdened by political debt. If they don’t match, then Ramaphosa will happily be vindicated.
While the exposure of the deployment committee’s activities has been inadvertent, it would be tragic if Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo dismissed its importance. State capture was never, as argued by Ramaphosa, an unfortunate and momentary lapse on the part of the ANC. Rather, it was a calculated process and it required cadre deployment to carry it out.
The dispute as to whether the deployment committee exercised only soft power, or was usually prescriptive and unchallenged, can easily be settled. The ANC should voluntarily open its records to scrutiny (after scratching around in the back cupboard to see if any Ramaphosa pages can be found) or else be compelled in the courts to do so.
The judiciary is at a delicately poised moment. A new Chief Justice must be appointed and four other positions on the Constitutional Court bench are potentially vacant this year.
If the JSC is a sub-committee of the ANC’s deployment committee — as are, we already know, the appointment committees of the public service and the SOEs — now is the moment to rectify matters.
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