The ongoing Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, has left many of us aghast. Come on. It must be nice to have someone pay for your birthday party. Or, forget that someone deposited a cool 2-million rand into your account. The Zondo commission, as it is commonly known, joins the long list of commissions on inquiry that have been a feature of South African life since 1994. Considerable time and state funding has been put into the many commissions.
But first up what is a commission of inquiry?
A commission of inquiry is not a court of law. It serves the purpose of establishing facts and its findings are non-binding. So, in order for the commission to have some lasting effect there must be political will to enforce the findings made by the commission.
Right, now that’s out of the way, we have rounded up some of the most notable commissions of inquiry in our recent history.
Purpose: It was a court-like body assembled after the end of apartheid. The proceedings were open to anyone who had been a victim of violence. The perpetrators of violence gave testimony and could request amnesty from prosecution. The commission was established under the mandate to bear witness and record the perpetrators of crimes and offer reparation and rehabilitation to the victims.
Duration: April 1996 – October 1998
Outcomes: In the final report presented by the commission, the commission condemned both sides for committing atrocities. The commission was criticised by many for the way it carried out its findings and procedures. Anti-apartheid activist and Black Consciousness thinker Steve Biko’s family described the process as a “vehicle for political expediency”, which “robbed” them of their right to justice.
Purpose: Also known as the Seriti Commission, it was set up to investigate allegations of fraud, corruption, impropriety or irregularity in the Strategic Defence Procurement Packages (SDPP) – Arms Deal. The SDPP was a US$4.8 billion (R30 billion in 1999 rands) purchase of weaponry by the African National Congress government led by Nelson Mandela.
Duration: January 2012 – June 2015
Outcomes: The findings of the inquiry were presented to former president Jacob Zuma in 2016. The commission was criticised for failing to hold those accused of corruption accountable by ignoring key evidence and not subpoenaing key witnesses. In 2019, the findings of the R137-million inquiry were set aside.
Purpose: Appointed by Zuma, the commission headed by retired judge Ian Farlam was tasked with finding who was responsible for the killing of the 34 mine workers at Marikana on August 16. It was also supposed to investigate what happened in the days preceding the massacre as well as after.
Duration: August 2012 – March 2015
Outcomes: The report found the South African Police Service, including national police commissioner Riah Phiyega were at fault. It absolved others, including Cyril Ramaphosa (then non-executive director of Lonmin and then police minister Nathi Mthethwa of wrong doing. The report found Lonmin failed to ensure the safety and security of its employees and did not respond appropriately to the outbreak of violence. The report was criticised for not holding those in power to properly account.
Purpose: The Fees Commission (Heher Commission) was appointed by Zuma to investigate the feasibility of fee-free higher education and training. The commission followed the 2015 Fees Must Fall protests that shut down campuses around South Africa.
Duration: January 2016 – June 2017
Outcomes: From the onset, many students expressed their concerns about the process. The report acknowledged that everyone has a right to further education. But the report said totally free education is not in the best interests of South Africa’s higher education sector and that “those who can afford to pay must pay”. Many activists and student leaders were disappointed but not surprised with the recommendations of the commission.
Purpose: This inquiry set up by Ramaphosa was tasked with investigating allegations of state capture, corruption and fraud in the public sector including organs of state. It was preceded by former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s State Capture report. The commission initially had until March 2020 to conclude its work. However, the coronavirus pandemic has affected its deadline as the commission only recently resumed its work. Several high-profile politicians and businesspeople have testified at the commission.
Duration: 2018 – March 2021
Outcomes: Who knows….
Purpose: The commission was appointed by Ramaphosa to look into tax administration and governance in the South African Revenue Service (SARS). The commission was chaired by retired Justice Robert Nugent.
Year: May 2018 – November 2018
Outcomes: An interim report by the commission called on Ramaphosa to immediately fire suspended SARS commissioner Tom Moyane. The final report recommended that the National Director of Public Prosecutions consider criminal prosecution for the awarding by Moyane of a contract to Bain & Co for the restructuring of SARS.
Purpose: Established by Ramaphosa, the commission was tasked with an inquiry into the fitness of the deputy national director of public prosecutions Nomgcobo Jiba and special director of public prosecutions Lawrence Mrwebi to hold. The inquiry was also known as the Mokgoro inquiry
Duration: October 2018 – April 2019
Outcomes: The inquiry found Jiba and Mrwebi were not fit and proper to hold office. The report said the pair lacked “complete honesty, reliability and integrity” as advocates.Ramaphosa ended the Jiba and Mrwebi tenure in the NPA) on those recommendations.
Other notable commissions that have taken place:
Commission on the Ellis Park Disaster (2001)
This was set up to investigate one of the worst sporting disasters in South Africa’s history. It looked into the injuries and loss of lives at a soccer match between Kaizer Chiefs Football Club and Orlando Pirates Football Club at Ellis Park Stadium on 11 April 2001. The commission found the police, security companies and organisers were at fault. It was criticised for making recommendations that didn’t address the main issues.
Khampepe Commission (2006)
The commission was set up to investigate the Scorpions and recommend on whether they should be merged into the South African Police Service. The report from the commission found that the Directorate of Special Operations (DSO) should remain within the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) but with adjustments.
Donen Commission (2006)
Established by former President Thabo Mbeki., this commission held an investigation into the alleged illicit activities of certain South African companies or individuals relating to the United Nations Oil for Food Programme. The report was released by Zuma in 2011 and found no one whose name featured in the investigation had contravened South Africa law.
In August 2018, Ramphosa set up the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) commission. The commission was tasked with investigating the governance structure of the PIC, its operating model and possible changes to the PIC’s founding legislation. The report which was released in March 202 found there was “substantial impropriety” at the PIC. It called for internal disciplinary action for former top executives.
While South Africa has seen many commissions in the past 25 years, the fact remains that commissions do not serve as a court of law. The people in charge of the commissions only make recommendations which the president and other officials have the final say on whether to act upon them. But what still makes commissions important is they “draw the public in to the issue, educating and inviting engagement.”