William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Time to pull thumb, Mr President

Some of President Jacob Zuma’s top people were all thumbs this week.

First up was deputy Defence Minister Kebby Maphatsoe, who also heads the party’s Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) Military Veterans’ Association. Speaking at a Soweto memorial service, he accused the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela of being an agent for the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

MK members had been trained to spot “enemy agents”, Maphatsoe said. “We’ve got those [sic] expertise amongst us. We are not just thumb-sucking.”

It then transpired that Maphatsoe had, after all, been sucking on his short, thick, first opposable digit. When challenged to either prove this slur, or retract and apologise, or face charges of contempt of the public protector’s office, the MK veteran sounded an ungracious retreat.

“It would seem my statements have been misunderstood and misinterpreted. I therefore withdraw [them] and apologise for any offence and hurt,” he said in a statement.

The next thumbs-down went to National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega, facing yet another gruelling round of questioning from Judge Ian Farlam’s inquiry into the police killing of 34 striking miners in 2012. She assured the commission that “although the Marikana issue is a sore thumb for me … lessons have been learnt”.

It unfortunately remained murky what these lessons were, because Phiyega answered almost every question from the judge with the refrain: “I can’t remember.”

Of particular interest to Farlam was a critical meeting between senior police commanders to discuss their “disperse, disarm and arrest” plan, the day before the killings. The SA Police Service (SAPS) apparently suffers from the same memory problems that afflict Phiyega, and had neglected ever to mention this meeting to the commission, which only found out about it when a police witness let the cat out the bag.

The commission was trying to establish whether any of these purportedly experienced and professional officers had sounded a note of caution over the risk of bloodshed the following day. Phiyega, again, came up short: “I’m not able to give that kind of pedantic detail.”

Responding to the increasingly sceptical Farlam, she explained with feigned regret: “Unfortunately, my mind doesn’t take me that far.” And later: “I am not able to say, ‘Phiyega said this’ and ‘Someone said this’ … That detail is not what is in my head.”

Whatever was in her head, Phiyega made it clear that as head of the SAPS, she was not interested in what she called “the nitty-gritties” of the plan. “We were comfortable as leaders that there were people managing what was taking place. We were taking feedback, listening.”

Collectively, these two top appointments of Zuma have ensured a torrid week for the president.

Maphatsoe had, like Little Jack Horner of the nursery rhyme, put in a thumb to pull out a plum against Zuma’s bête noire, the public protector. Instead Maphatsoe had spectacularly burnt his fingers.

Then Phiyega’s hapless attempts to sticking a thumb in the rapidly crumbling dyke of SAPS credibility also failed. It is only the public preoccupation with judgment in the murder trial of Paralympian Oscar Pretorius that saved her from overwhelming ridicule for her evasive performance.

Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier was this week ordered out of the National Assembly for refusing to withdraw his assertion that Maphatsoe “is an idiot”. And rightly so. Such a serious allegation against an Honourable Member cannot be bolstered merely by anecdotal evidence, not matter how persuasive.

However, had he called Maphatsoe a liar, as the Economic Freedom Front did in a statement, he would have had the unimpeachable defence of truth. In Parliament, Maphatsoe unambiguously “rejected” the account of his claims as reported by Baldwin Ndaba of The Star. It was “just a headline, and by a person that was not there”.

Although Ndaba was not present, he based his report on a verbatim transcription taken from a video of the event, posted on YouTube by the MK veterans’ association itself. The video proves that Maphatsoe did accuse Madonsela of being a CIA agent. In any case, why else would he subsequently apologise?

It might not matter much to Zuma that he has a minister who disrespects the Constitution and then lies about it. Nor that he has a national police chief who is an amnesiac and thinks it’s a “pedantic detail” whether her men might shoot people dead. On the other hand, unless he wants to store up more strife for himself, the African National Congress, and the nation, he could just pull out his thumb and fire both of them.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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