Thuli Madonsela: Good public servant or evil “enemy agent”?

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has been accused of being a CIA agent. Because apparently one needs to be deployed as a spy in order to do one’s  job. PONTSHO PILANE reflects.

On Saturday, Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Kebby Maphatsoe has accused Public Protector Thuli Madonsela of being an “enemy agent” and a plant sent by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

“They are even using our institutions now … These chapter 9 institutions were created by the ANC but are now being used against us, and if you ask why, it is the Central Intelligence Agency,” Maphatsoe said.

Madonsela has been under fire from the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies since she began investigating President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla home and found that he had unduly benefited from government funds for alleged security upgrades, including a revamped cattle kraal and “fire pool”.

In her report, the Public Protector recommended that the president pay back the portion of the upgrades that are not related to security.

The Daily Vox recently showcased Madonsela’s five biggest cases since her tenure began in 2009. Madonsela has done an excellent job as Public Protector – the two previous Public Protectors were virtually unknown to the public and her predecessor, Lawrence Mushwana, was widely perceived as being lenient towards corrupt or unethical state officials. Mushwana left the post under a cloud of controversy but not without a R7-million golden handshake.

So when Maphatsoe accused her of being an agent, it alerted us to a problem the ruling party may have with anyone who “takes on the ANC”, even if it is indirectly.

Just recently, Sunday Times reporter Gareth van Onselen was accused of being sent by “his masters” to expose that Pallo Jordan did not have a doctorate, as he had claimed for many years.

In a Business Day column, van Onselen addressed the rampant conspiracy mentality that exists in South Africa. Although in his case he was being accused of being an agent of the ANC, the allegations are fundamentally similar. It seems that one cannot be critical of a political superior in South Africa without being accused of having been sent to do the bidding of one’s ‘handlers’.

Similarly, last year newspaper proprietor Iqbal Survé, when questioned by a Mail & Guardian reporter about the media independence of his consortium, a large stake of which is controlled by the South African government, implied that the weekly newspaper may be “controlled by the CIA” and “funded by Washington.”

But labelling people “agents” is nothing new in South Africa. Steve Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, was at one time labelled a CIA agent by none other than Zuma’s spokesperson Mac Maharaj.

Author Paul Trewhela this week pointed out that the familiarity of the rhetoric now being used against Madonsela. “The phrase “enemy agent” was used indiscriminately in exile, and often carried a death sentence,” writes Trewhela, who argues that this charge is “sanctioned from the top”.

The idea that “higher powers” must be controlling Madonsela because she “takes on the President” stems, I believe, from the idea that the ANC cannot be challenged because institutions such as the Public Protector only exist due to them.

In a recent column, Mail & Guardian associate editor Verashni Pillay said: “The ruling party may have been a major player in the creation of our new Constitution after we became a democracy, but it does not own the document or the institutions it created.”

Is it so hard to believe that Madonsela was simply doing her job when she investigated Nkandla? Yet some choose instead to believe that there must be some underlying sinister motivation for Madonsela to follow the evidence presented to her. Is this because we are so inured to public servants placing their personal objectives above those of the office they occupy?

Questioning the actions of government does not necessarily mean that one is against government. And yet in spite of the overwhelming evidence showing wrongdoing in the renovations made at Nkandla, some, like Maphatsoe, seem to think that only an imperialist agent, sent to discredit South Africa’s liberation movement, could ever find reason to criticise it.