Uneasy lies the Speaker's head

Andrew Donaldson on critical unanswered questions in the Mapisa-Nqakula corruption case


THERE is an intriguing aspect to National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula’s current legal problems, one that many commentators, for whatever reason, appear to have ignored. 

It would seem that, in addition to accepting some R2.3-million in backhanders in the three years when she was defence minister, Mapisa-Nqakula also received a wig as part of a bribe.

We have already reported on how, between November 2016 and July 2019, Mapisa-Nqakula allegedly demanded the cash from one Nombasa Ntsondwa-Ndhlovu, a so-called “defence industry businesswoman”, to help secure defence force transport contracts worth R210-million. 

In her sworn affidavit with the National Prosecuting Authority, Ntsondwa-Ndhlovu detailed how cash was handed over to the minister in “gift bags” at such venues as Waterkloof military base, OR Tambo airport and at Mapisa-Nqakula’s home in Bruma, Johannesburg.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

But this wig stuff is new. Annoyingly, there are no further details on this hairpiece, only unanswered questions. What is the value of this wig? Is this a traditional custom, to dole out wigs to one another? Is provenance an issue? Does it matter if it’s one of those controversial “Uyghur weaves” from China’s Xinjiang province? 

Was the wig perhaps part of an elaborate disguise? After all, it’s claimed that it was handed over together with a large bundle of cash in an airport, and ministers would prefer not to be recognised at such times. However, with a pair of dark glasses and a leonine rug, a high-ranking member of the government could easily be mistaken for a visiting pop star, possibly of the warbling type now dominating the R&B genre.

All may be revealed in due course. But here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), there was some opinion that the wig may not be a wig after all, but rather some object of an ursine nature. There are reports that an illegally imported bear skin “with claws” is of some interest to investigators. One hopes that Mapisa-Nqakula has not been wearing this grisly item on her head.

The regulars, incidentally, suspect this bear skin may be of Russian origin, and they point to a sporting practice common in the forests of the northern Urals. A peasant is smothered in Bovril, wrapped in animal fur and tied to a tree. Lying in wait, hunters with assault rifles drink copious amounts of vodka. The “sport” here is to not pass out lest the peasant is eaten by wild beasts. 

But we digress. Mapisa-Nqakula is gamely resisting the investigation into her alleged crimes. She has lodged an urgent application with the Pretoria High Court to interdict investigators from arresting her. This action follows the raid on her home last week in which, among other things, members of the NPA’s Investigating Directorate seized one of her wigs. Judgment in the matter has been reserved, but is expected next week.

Mapisa-Nqakula, who has taken “special leave” and temporarily stepped down as Speaker, has also presented the court with a depiction of herself as an heroic figure who has suffered a great injustice. No cliche has been spared in this regard. 

“The ultimate purpose of this application,” she reportedly declared in an affidavit, “is to protect my constitutional rights in respect inter alia to freedom, and dignity, including my rights to good name and reputation and self esteem as well as to pursue a vocation of my choosing.

“I have devoted the majority of my adult life to the pursuit of the rule of law and constitutional democracy, and the demise of the security state in South Africa. The machinery of the criminal justice system and the state’s prerogative of prosecution was abused and used as a political tool then. I verily fear that this practice has once again reared its ugly head and, if not stopped, carries the real risk of further fraying the constitutional fabric of our young democracy.”

And I verily fear that it may have been remiss of Mapisa-Nqakula’s legal counsel to permit such mangling of metaphors in a court document. Granted, English may not be her mother tongue, but that’s probably not the case with her advocate, Reg Willis. 

Accusing the state of using “terror tactics” against his client, he has dramatically exclaimed: “If this is how the Speaker of Parliament, the second most influential individual in our constitutional democracy, if this is how she is treated, well then, the rest of us in this courtroom need not get our hopes too high.”

Hopes were not exactly high, however, when Mapisa-Nqakula was appointed Speaker in August 2021. At the time, a recap of the “majority” of her career achievements suggested a pursuit of the rule of law and constitutional democracy that may have been at odds with what is perhaps expected of those in high office.

Given that Mapisa-Nqakula’s deputy, Lechesa Tsenoli, has provisionally granted the Democratic Alliance’s request for parliament to debate a no-confidence motion in his boss, it is reasonable to expect MPs will be revisiting some of these highlights.

She was appointed defence minister by Jacob Zuma in 2012. Troubled followed thick and fast. In 2013, the Gupta family, who were then merrily proceeding with plans to milk the fiscus, was granted permission to land an aircraft containing wedding guests at the Waterkloof air force base.

In 2016, Mapisa-Nqakula admitted to smuggling a 22-year-old Burundian woman with a false passport into South Africa on an air force jet in 2014. The woman, Michele Wege, was said to be her late son’s lover. Mapisa-Nqakula told the Sunday Times that Wege came from an abused family and needed her help. She denied abusing her power. “I’d do it again if I had to,” she said.

She was in the dwang again in 2020, this time for misusing state resources for party business by allowing an ANC delegation to use an air force jet to travel to Zimbabwe to meet with Zanu-PF officials. Cyril Ramaphosa ignored opposition calls to have her fired and instead docked three months of her salary.

The biggest controversy came in July 2021, when Zuma supporters rioted in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, leaving more than 300 people dead, many businesses destroyed and damage estimated at more than R50-billion. The unrest had caught Squirrel and his administration unawares. The security cluster, which included Mapisa-Nqakula, had been utterly useless in this crisis. 

Mapisa-Nqakula had even publicly rubbished claims by Squirrel in a televised address to the nation that the violence was part of a failed insurrection. It was clear that she had to go. 

So, in accordance with the ruling party’s standard disciplinary procedures, Squirrel promoted her. As Speaker, she was now paid a higher salary than a minister and, in her new role, was first in line to take over as head of state in the event the president lost a vote of no confidence. 

Lastly, and to return to the matter of headgear, a Sunday World report on the NPA raid on Mapisa-Nqakula’s home last week notes that she is a fully fledged sangoma with an indumba, or sacred hut, on her premises. 

What she gets up to in there is perhaps her own business, but it does explain some of the hats that Mapisa-Nqakula has worn while presiding over matters in the National Assembly. Some of them have resembled tea cosies, others weird doilies. A wig may even be an improvement.

Round the bend

The curiously named Department of Sports, Arts and Culture is continuing with its programme of renaming South Africa’s towns, streets and other landmarks thereby ramping up service delivery and greatly improving the lives of citizens. Latest officially confirmed casualties in this zealous compulsion include the town of Ladysmith and William Nicol Drive, one of Johannesburg’s busiest thoroughfares.

Ladysmith is now uMnambithi, the traditional name for the area and one still used by some Zulu-speaking people to refer to the town. Commentators claim townsfolk are not pleased with the new name, so it could be said that Ladysmith is under siege once more. The name uMnambithi was apparently coined by Shaka after he visited the area, drank from a local river and found its waters rather sweet. If anyone drank from the river these days, though, they’d probably get sick and die. 

Speaking of which, when authorities called for submissions for Ladysmith’s renaming, one suggestion was KwaFelubala, which means “the place where people are being killed for no reason”. Another suggestion was to rename the place after Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but that may have been a bit too artsy and cultural for Zizi Kodwa, the minister driving all this confusion.

While there may be strong objections to William Nicol’s change to Winnie Mandela Drive, I think the name is quite suitable. The rush hour commutes here are infuriatingly slow and maddening, and thousands of motorists succumb to fits of murderous rage on a daily basis. Simply put, this is the road that Joburgers love to hate.

Bullshit walks

The Electoral Commission of SA has made its party lists public. The good news is that my old friend, the boulevardier Carl Niehaus, will in all likelihood be going to Parliament. He is placed at number 27 on the EFF’s national list of candidates. Given that the Redshirts currently have 44 MPs in the National Assembly, this means the Great Ambassador is practically a shoe-in for a seat as well. 

This is proof of something, I suppose. That the gods have a vicious sense of humour. Something like that.