An inauspicious end to Ngcuka saga

South Africans have reason to be apprehensive over the resignation of Bulelani Ngcuka as the national director of prosecutions.

South Africans have reason to be apprehensive over the resignation of Bulelani Ngcuka as the national director of prosecutions. Not withstanding the almost bland assurances by Ngcuka that there was nothing precipitious about his decision to quit, suspicions linger that his departure from one of the most important — and prestigious — positions in the administrative bureaucracy was not voluntary but, rather, induced by sustained pressure to drive him out.

Ngcuka was, of course, the target of a vicious onslaught almost from the moment that he ordered the Scorpions to press ahead with an investigation into the financial affairs of deputy president Jacob Zuma. The specific focus of the investigation was that he had solicited a protection fee of R500 000 a year from Thompson-CSF or Thales, the French armaments company that succeeding in winning a lucrative contract under South Africa’s multi-billion rand arms deal.

Though Ngcuka initially won praise for his handling of the national prosecuting authority and the directorate of investigations, aka the Scorpions, he became the target of an anonymous vilification campaign. Its aim, he declared when news of his denigration by faceless detractors first seeped through to the media, was to coerce him into restraining the Scorpions until their attention could be directed elsewhere. His refusal to back down led to the next phase of the campaign: the leaking to the media of allegations that he had been investigated as a suspected government agent during the last few years of white political hegemony.

Ngcuka, who was imprisoned in the 1980s for refusing to testify for the state against an ANC guerrilla, had a moment of triumph when the (Joos) Hefer commission of inquiry found that there was no evidence that he served as a double agent for the previous government. The campaign against him did not cease, however. It culminated in the report to parliament by the public protector, Lawrence Mushwana, who had been asked to investigate whether Ngcuka had abused his position in his handling of the investigation into Zuma.

Mushwana found that Ngcuka had infringed on Zuma’s right to human dignity and improperly prejudiced him when he declared in a press statement in August 2003 that there was a prima facie case of corruption against Zuma but that he would not be prosecuted because there was no guarantee that the prosecution would succeed. An ANC-dominated parliamentary committee subsequently adopted the report. Apart from being selected by a meeting chaired by Zuma, the ANC majority committee refused to grant Ngcuka a hearing, to the dismay of most opposition party representatives.

The timing of Ngcuka’s prima facie statement of August 2003 is interesting in retrospect. In an interview with the Financial Mail in July 2004 he says he told president Thabo Mbeki a year ago that he “wanted out” but Mbeki had asked him to stay on for another year. These events pose intriguing questions. One is whether Ngcuka wanted to quit because prosecution of Zuma had been blocked for political reasons. Another is whether he felt honour-bound to add that there was a prima facie case against Zuma when he announced a month later that the deputy president would not be prosecuted.

These questions are the product of reasonable conjecture rather than idle speculation. They reinforce the suspicion that Ngcuka was pushed out, albeit in a comradely way that has enabled him to resurrect a prosperous career in business, which, it should be noted in parenthesis, is rapidly becoming a haven for disillusioned or out-of-favour ANC luminaries. Ngcuka’s career path as national director of prosecutions contains an implicit warning to his successor to think carefully before initiating an investigation against an ANC baron with the political clout of Zuma.

That, of course, has potentially profound implications for South Africa, particularly as it will open the way for Zuma to pursue his presidential ambitions, even though he accepted huge sums of money or “loans”, as they have now been designated, from Schabir Shaik, the Durban businessman. Shaik, of course, is Zuma’s financial adviser. Beyond that he is a director of a South African subsidiary of Thompson-CSF and the accused in a pending corruption trial with potentially far-reaching implications for South Africa’s war against malfeasance in government and corruption generally.