Since the Public Protector announced her findings of gross mismanagement against the Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Pansy Tlakula, a number of commentators, opposition political parties, and newspaper correspondents have argued that Adv Tlakula should either resign or be suspended in order to preserve the integrity of the IEC and allow it to run next year’s elections untainted by the scandal now attaching to its Chairperson.
But to what extent do the Public Protector’s findings actually affect the IEC in its core task of conducting credible elections? Does the fact that its Chairperson ignored proper procedures in the matter of acquiring new office space mean that, as an institution, it cannot carry out its election- related duties?
It may be worth stepping back and considering the two improprieties committed by Adv Tlakula. Firstly, she overrode an earlier decision (itself apparently questionable) about a new office for the IEC and, in the process of choosing another building, she failed to follow proper tender requirements. Thus, her actions were unprocedural. There is no suggestion that she benefited personally from the choice of building.
Secondly, she failed to disclose a conflict of interest concerning her private business involvements. She is a director of a company called Lehotsa Investments. One of her fellow directors is Thaba Mufamadi (who also happens to be an MP and chairperson of Parliament’s finance portfolio committee), and Mr Mufamadi is in turn a director of Manaka Property Investments, which owns 20% of the company that owns the building ultimately selected by the IEC as it new office. Again, there is no suggestion that Lehotsa Investments, or Adv Tlakula as one of its directors, benefited from the link to Mr Mufamadi and his company. Neither is it suggested that Adv Tlakula manipulated the choice of building in order to favour Mr Mufamadi’s company. But she should clearly have been sensitive to the likelihood that such a manipulation would be suspected.
Unfortunately, and typically for a South African public official found guilty of maladministration, Adv Tlakula has adopted offence as the best defence. She denies any wrongdoing and says the Public Protector’s findings are ‘unfounded’. She has no intention of resigning. Regrettable as this ‘injured pride’ stance may be, it is difficult to see why her refusal to admit guilt should diminish the credibility of the IEC, which has a fine reputation for conducting sound elections. No-one argued that the fact that the recently-dismissed communications minister, Dina Pule, was corrupt meant that the whole department of communications was compromised.
Adv Tlakula’s mismanagement, and her blindness to a conflict of interest regarding a property transaction, do not imply that the organisation she heads is suddenly unable to do its job. We should be very careful before we put it about that the IEC – and our elections – are somehow compromised or tainted by the poor judgement of its head in a matter entirely tangential to its core function.
But this episode does shine a spotlight on two inter-related points which bedevil public life in South Africa. One is the extent to which public servants, from the most junior to the most elevated, hold directorships in companies. For example, over 8 000 employees of the Eastern Cape health department are company directors, and 900 of them do business with the state. This can only result in conflicts of interest and a tendency towards corruption.
Secondly, there is a high degree of incestuousness in many of these companies and directorships. There are numerous examples of civil servants and politicians, and their close family members, holding multiple positions on company boards, with the result that conflicts of interest – or at least the perception thereof – must inevitably arise. Surely, in this regard, it is simply undesirable that the chairperson of an important parliamentary committee should sit in the same company boardroom as the head of such a key state institution as the IEC.
It is encouraging that Lindiwe Sisulu, the Minister of Public Service and Administration, plans to introduce legislation to prohibit civil servants from holding directorships or being involved in companies that do business with the state. As the regrettable lapse of judgement by Adv Tlakula shows, this is an urgently needed step.