S.Africa's Zuma sacks two ministers suspected of graft

24th October 2011, Comments 0 comments

South African President Jacob Zuma on Monday launched a major anti-corruption drive, sacking two ministers, suspending the police chief and naming a panel to probe a multi-billion-dollar arms deal.

The surprise announcement marked Zuma's most aggressive move yet to rein in corruption which has dogged his government, as he tries to shore up his position ahead of his party's leadership conference next year.

Zuma sacked minister for local government Sicelo Shiceka and Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, while suspending national police commissioner Bheki Cele.

He also named a top judge to head a commission of inquiry into a multi-billion-dollar arms deal which involves claims of bribery in the country's largest military contract, implicating the president himself.

South Africa's strident Public Protector Thuli Madonsela earlier this month found Shiceka guilty of misusing public funds for posh holiday travels, while Mahlangu-Nkabinde and Cele were accused of misconduct in 1.7 billion rand ($211 million, 153 million euro) leases for new police headquarters.

Zuma thanked the ousted ministers "for their contribution to building a better life for all" in South Africa and announced a board of inquiry into the police leases.

Madonsela found Shiceka guilty of maladministration, unlawful conduct and repeated abuse of public funds for stays in posh hotels -- including a trip to Switzerland to visit his girlfriend in prison.

Madonsela acts as an ombudsman for government, and urged Zuma to take "serious action" against Shiceka within 60 days.

Shiceka has threatened legal action over the report, which he has termed "baseless and devoid of evidence".

Shiceka has been on sick leave since February while the public uproar over his spending has turned him into a symbol of government waste.

Mahlangu-Nkabinde and Cele were also the targets of an investigation by Madonsela into the police leases.

Mahlangu-Nkabinde in particular was accused of failing to cooperate with the public protector's investigation, which found that she was guilty of maladministration in pushing for new leases for police headquarters in Pretoria against legal advice.

Madonsela also found Cele guilty of improper conduct and maladministration in connection with the Pretoria lease and another lease for a building in the port city of Durban.

But the arms deal investigation could carry the most consequence for Zuma.

Charges against Zuma were dropped just before his election in 2009, after roiling South African politics for a decade.

The court verdict that dropped the charges against Zuma implied that former president Thabo Mbeki had meddled in the prosecution of the case, which led to Zuma's dismissal as deputy president in 2005.

South Africa spent about $5 billion to modernise its military, in a deal that included the purchase of 12 trainer Hawk jets and naval patrol boats from five European groups, including BAE systems and French arms firm Thales, which was then known as Thomson-CSF.

Justice Willie Seriti from the Supreme Court of Appeal will head the panel, which also includes two judges from the Pretoria high court, Zuma told reporters.

"We wish Justice Seriti and his team well in the execution of this important task," Zuma said.

But he gave the panel two years to complete its work -- conveniently after the next leadership conference of the African National Congress in December 2012, when the party will choose its next presidential candidate.

"It's all indications that Zuma wants to address the criticism against him that he's a lame duck president, that's he's not a strong president, that he doesn't take initiative," said University of South Africa political analyst Dirk Kotze.

"It's also to make his position stronger with respect to next year's ANC conference, that he is seen as strong within the ANC and that he provides leadership in the ANC."

© 2011 AFP

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